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5 Things I Learned from Judging a Writing Contest

I’ve just finished judging two categories of a major international writing and photography contest–no, I can’t disclose which one yet–and I learned A LOT in the process. Here are some of the lessons worth sharing with you:

1. People who don’t enter because they think they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning should throw their hats in the ring.
You’d be surprised how few people, relatively speaking, enter contests, even those sponsored by prestigious organizations.

A lot of people think about entering but never get around to starting the application process. A lot of people start the application process but never get around to finishing it. And if an entry fee is involved, even fewer people tend to apply.

In other words, the pool of competitors tends to be considerably less populated than you think. Anytime you see a contest extending its deadline, you can be relatively sure that the organizers feel they haven’t received enough submissions. Get your material together and get it submitted. If you apply to contests regularly, you should have files with basic documents that you can edit as needed and print out or prep for electronic submission based on the specs of each contest.

2. A lot of people who enter are disqualified. Don’t be that guy.
There are relatively few people who end up getting all of the application materials together and submitted on time, but there are even fewer who make it past the initial round of judging.

A recommendation that someone promised to send on your behalf never showed up. Sorry, you’re out.

The resume you were supposed to include is still sitting in the printer’s output tray. Sad but true, your application’s headed for the recycling bin.

The work samples you sent didn’t meet one or more of the criteria outlined in the application. Tough breaks: you’ve been disqualified.

3. The best candidates aren’t always the ones who win.
Speaking of disqualified… I was so bummed for the photographer whose submission was #1 on my list for the award… until I realized one of his three portfolio links was dated 2013. Since all work submitted in support of the application was supposed to be from 2014, his otherwise strong submission, which was leagues beyond the other applicants, had to be disqualified. It wasn’t solely the strength of his work that mattered; it was his ability to follow instructions.

4. Most people don’t double check their entries before submitting them.
Or maybe they do, but they simply don’t catch all the typos before they hit “send” or before they postmark their materials. Every entry I reviewed had one or more glaring errors. One of the criteria we used to judge submissions was quality of writing, so the more typos, the lower a submission was scored. There were also entries that pointed me to URLs generating 404 errors. Bottom line: Double check everything before you complete your submission.

5. Most people really don’t read instructions well. At all.
One entrant in two categories didn’t submit the necessary samples of work required by judges. It wasn’t that she submitted too few or too many (though there were folks who did that, too); it’s that she didn’t submit any. She simply pointed judges to her website, where I suppose she expected we’d click around at random and read whatever struck our fancy. The only problem was, those weren’t the rules. Each judge was expected to evaluate the same set of materials. If those materials weren’t provided, or if too few or too many were provided, they had to be disqualified as well.

Contests are a valuable use of your time. They help you establish some degree of credibility, they provide some sense of validation about the value of your hard work, and they tend to draw more attention to you and your projects. And even if you don’t win, applying for contests can be an extremely useful exercise, showing you whether your body of work is that: a coherent, cohesive whole. Taking the time to put together a solid submission puts you ahead of the pack.


11 responses »

  1. Thank you. This has been very eye opening. I’d like to dial back to 1991 and send this to myself! It seems like the Internet has also changed things considerably.

  2. Thanks for sharing this insight. Inspires me to apply to more contests!

  3. This is great and good to know, and yeah it inspires for applying in more contests.

  4. Thank you so much! I’m so glad I read this, been looking for a reaon to hand in my work and now I’m just going to do it. Thanks 😀

  5. This is so insightful, I might just go and enter some more competitions. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been afraid to enter competitions, but I’ll definitely enter some more now 😉 Thanks 😀

  6. Thanks for writing this experience up to share with us. I have run a writing contest (for a local writers club). How disappointed I was at the quality and quantity of the submissions. After so many hours getting top writers to volunteer as judges, they received a small stipend, adversing the contest on social media and in person for such tiny results.

  7. Pingback: 5 Things I Learned from Judging a Writing Contest | Dog Leader Mysteries

  8. Sorry for my hasty comment. Corrected 2nd sentence should read as “I volunteered to run a writing contest…”


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