I don't “do” contests, either to enter or to judge. As a newbie writer, I competed in a couple of them early on, but a few meetings of various writer’s group cured me of thinking the feedback would be worth the money they charged. A writing group I'd joined spent several meetings trying to come up with money making ideas. One such idea was to offer critiques for a fee. Although I admit that I was skeptical of this as a fundraising strategy, I listened to seasoned writers refusing to “waste their time”. I listened to people with one or two books under their belts wanting to charge hundreds of dollars to read and comment on entries. I listened to someone who had never been able to pitch a book successfully wanting to charge to critique pitches and offer developmental critiques. The entire process had me wondering if we might do more harm than good offering such services.
For my first bad personal experience, I was in a meeting where the officers were giving an update on the progress of the contest. A simple discussion turned into a tirade by members of the club’s contest who apparently thought they were unduly burdened. For more than 40 minutes people complained. They were sick of the horrendous writing and burdened by the contest rules which required them to offer meaningful critiques. On and on they lamented about wasting their time on writers who were clearly clueless and never going to be publishable. Yes, they actually said these things and worse. I was mortified for those in the room who, in good faith, had submitted their work. I vowed then to never enter another contest.
I decided to never again judge a contest due to a similar ridiculous circumstance. I was asked to help my group out and critique a few contest entries. I was skeptical of my ability as I was newly published and still learning to be a better writer myself. But I figured I'd view my role as one of a beta reader and offer my take on the author's story structure and ability to draw me in as a reader. I explained this and was assured that my plan was in line with the rules/goals of the contest. I was also assured (and in fact, the rules of the contest stated explicitly) that the judges' feedback and scores would be anonymous.
Flash forward to weeks after the winners were announced. To my horror, one of the contestants approached me and complained about the score she'd received. As you might imagine, I was stunned. I did keep my cool, and reminded her to look at my comments and not just the score because I, in fact, liked her story. I scored her in accordance with the judges' rubric and offered meaningful and kind feedback. To add insult to injury, every time we ran into each other over the next year or so, she pointed at me and announced to whoever was nearby (including agents and editors!) that "she hates my writing".
Yes, I did go back to the contest's organizers to complain. I was assured there was "no way she could know". Funny. Because she did know.
By no means do I discount all writing contests. There are many notable competitions resulting in significant accolades and opportunities for winners and runner ups. My advice to new writers would be to investigate each contest thoroughly. Just a few sample inquiries: What is the reputation of the sponsoring group? Are there many participants? What are the qualifications of the judges? What kind of feedback will you receive?
Have you entered or judged any writing contests? What was your experience? I hope lightyears better than mine.