Learning From Contests
Last year, I decided to be brave and enter some writing contests. My hope: to gain valuable feedback about my writing and my story. I entered two contests in the spring and received helpful observations. On a whim, I submitted to two contests in September and put them out of my mind. In early November, I received a few phone calls from a phone number I didn’t recognize. Since it was election season, I didn’t answer. After the third attempt, the caller left a message. Imagine my shock when I heard the words, “I’m happy to let you know you finaled in our contest. Congratulations.”
My hands shook as I listened, and then re-listened to those words.” I finaled? The following week, an e-mail popped into my inbox notifying me that I had finaled in another contest. My kids wondered if Mama had finally taken a dive into the deep end as I “Eeeee-d” my way through supper preparations.
As I receive scores, I’m learning some great things about evaluating results. Contests provide feedback in various ways. One contest sent the judge’s score and comments on my actual entry. Other contests provided a rubric and a number score next to each item being assessed. Some judges left comments, others gave only the number score.
After I entered the My Book Therapy’s Frasier contest for the first time, I created a spread sheet to consolidate everything onto one page. I made a column with category and sub-category descriptions (i.e. Stakes, Hero/Heroine Identity, etc) My next column was for the scores from Judge One. The third column was for the scores from Judge 2, and the fourth column was for me to make notes on ways I could improve based on scores and comments judges offered.
I know, it sounds like a lot of work, but seeing everything in one place helps me detect patterns. If both judges scored me lower in a certain category, that is a great indicator of something I need to work on. On the flip side, higher scores from both judges indicate a writing strength. When I saw a discrepancy in the scores, I talked to a mentor about them.
Though not everyone is an analyzer, a few things I’ve come to understand through my contest experiences are:
1. Pray before even peeking at scores. I’m guessing most of us enter contests because we want feedback on our writing. Sometimes we’re going to receive feedback that says, “Yes! You’re on the right track!” Other times, judges’ scores will be harder to embrace. The key is to ask God to help you see the gemstones within the disappointments. Take a day or so before you pore over your results. This allows you to calm down and gain some distance, so you can evaluate with a fresh perspective.
2. Identify what will help you use contest scores to better your writing skills. And, no, I don’t mean shred the low scores. You may not be an analyzer like I am, so discover what will help you take the data offered and use it to make your writing better. Maybe that means focusing on one area of improvement and setting the rest aside for a later time.
3. When judges offer positive comments and suggestions for growth, don’t focus only on the negative. Believe in your writing strengths. Even seemingly negative comments have nuggets hidden within their words. If someone says, “This story isn’t original,” you’ve just been given a great clue about a weakness. The challenge: mix things up in your story and add some sparkle.
4. Remember scores tell us something about our writing, but judges are subjective, because, well, they’re human. If you disagree with or don’t understand a score, talk with someone you trust for clarification.
5. Above all, have a teachable spirit. Remember, God gave you your story, and He’ll help you write it, with help from others.
What about you? How do use contest results to become a stronger writer?
Jeanne Takenaka writes women’s fiction that deals with real life issues with a heart to draw women closer to God and to those around them. She is wife to one amazing man who is her real life hero, and mother to two exuberant boys who hope to one day have a dog of their own. She loves being God’s girl always learning about His grace, making memories with her family, hanging out with friends and enjoying a great cup of coffee. She and her family reside near the mountains of Colorado. She is a member of ACFW.