The Uses (and Abuses) of RWA® Chapter Contests

Posted Oct 6 2018

For those who don’t know, many RWA® chapters hold annual contests where writers can enter the first few pages or even chapters of their stories (or other specific sections, such as a first kiss, or parts of a query). The entries are judged in the first round by 2-3 members of the chapter, and occasionally other RWA® members, based on a scoresheet that awards points for different elements of the story such as character, plot, etc. Based on those numeric scores, 3-5 finalists are named and their entries are sent to final round judges, usually editors or agents, who make the final rankings and frequently often request partials or fulls of the stories they’ve ranked highly.

Since coming in second in a recent chapter contest earned me a request for my fantasy romance from an editor I’d been hoping to get to look at it for quite a while, I’ve been thinking about lately about better and worse reasons for entering any particular chapter contest, or any of these contests at all. Based on my experience (which is shockingly extensive, I fear), there are at least two good reasons to enter a contest and at least one bad reason.

My fantasy romance is a great example of the first good reason to enter chapter contests. Since I’d never written anything like that before, I was afraid to invest much time or energy in the story, as much as I loved it, without having at least some clue that I could successfully write in that genre. So I tested it out in a series of contests, each involving more and more pages of the story. And it won enough of them to convince me to finish the book (and its sequel). So, chapter contests can be a good way to test out new ideas, new genres, a new voice for your work.

Earlier in my writing career, I entered chapter contests for the wrong reason. I’d lost my critique group and entered a series of contests that asked for different parts of the story — first chapter, first kiss, conflict scene, ending, etc. — primarily for the feedback. The idea itself wasn’t so wrong, but didn’t mesh with the reality of chapter contests. Some of the feedback I got was great and helped me improve my story, but a lot of it was either non-existent (comments by judges aren’t required in most contests), unhelpful (“your voice is too bland and generic”), contradictory (“your voice is too strong” as a comment by another judge in the same contest), or simply random (“The Pacific Ocean isn’t cold” — yes, in California it is). If you need a critique group, find or create one — in my experience, the judging in contests isn’t consistent enough to be a good substitute. (And notes that the RWA’s® Golden Heart® contest doesn’t give any feedback at all, only numeric scores.)

Once I learned this lesson and found a critique group, the primary reason I entered chapter contests and, I think, the primary one for most writers, was to get my work in front of editors and agents I wanted to work with. This is what worked recently with my fantasy romance and what has gotten me several requests for full manuscripts from my “dream editors” over the years. As I’ve already said, I’m mostly off the contest crousel now that I have an agent, but it served me well over all. Other writers might want to seriously consider looking into RWA® contests to find those that will suit their needs best and use them to advance their writing careers the way they’ve advanced mine.

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