When You Don’t Final—Handling Feedback from Contests

ACFW Advice, Contests, Critiques, Friends of ACFW, tips 6 Comments

By Rachel Dylan

When I first started writing I entered numerous writing contests for unpublished authors. I was excited to enter and see what others thought about these crazy stories that had developed inside my head. These contests were a great way to get feedback and have someone who didn’t know me read my manuscript. I jumped in and started submitting my manuscripts to various contests, but I was vastly unprepared to handle what happened next.

I’m still a big proponent of writing contests, and I personally LOVE judging unpublished contests and providing comments. I take it seriously because I remember what it was like to be on the other side. For those of you who are unpublished and still on the unpublished contest circuit, I want to share a couple of personal stories that will hopefully encourage you and might even give you a good chuckle.

Picture this—The finalists of the contest were announced, and I definitely was not one of them. But then I get the email that says the judges’ comments are attached. I’m filled with enthusiasm as I eagerly download the documents that contain the feedback I’m craving. When I open one of the documents, my eyes start scanning down the page. All the way to the bottom line. A line that held a big fat zero. Yes, you read that right. Zero! How could have that been? Could my writing have been so bad as to deserve a zero? I was thoroughly crushed.

My other story involves my all time favorite comment I received in an unpublished contest. I’m still a practicing attorney and at the time of the contest entry, I had been practicing law for a number of years. The comment from the judge said, and I quote, “A lawyer would never talk like this.” Now this comment made me both laugh and become indignant. Of course a lawyer would talk like that. I was a lawyer and I wrote it!

Now that years have gone by I can look back on these two events with more perspective. I still don’t understand why I got the zero, but that score only motivated me to try harder and push forward with my writing. And while I still laugh about the lawyer comment, I was able to see it with fresh eyes and not be personally hurt by it.

So here’s a few words of advice regarding writing contests and how to handle the feedback.

  • Realize it’s only one person’s opinion. But then consider their opinion carefully.
  • Don’t take comments personally. The judge doesn’t even know who you are.
  • Take what you can from the comments. You don’t have to agree with everything the judge said to be able to take the comments and learn from them.
  • Keep an open mind and don’t put up your guard.
  • Don’t get overly emotional (I’m so guilty of this). You have poured everything into the story, but it’s not worth stewing over.
  • If you do get worked up about any comments, channel that angst into your writing. Commit to improve your craft and work as hard as you can.
  • Don’t let positive feedback go to your head. Even the most seasoned author can improve.

Rachel Dylan writes Christian fiction including legal romantic suspense. Rachel has practiced law for over a decade including being a litigator at one of the nation’s top law firms. She enjoys weaving together legal and suspenseful stories with a romantic twist. A southerner at heart, she now lives in Michigan with her husband and five furkids—two dogs and three cats. Rachel loves to connect with readers. You can find Rachel at www.RachelDylan.com.



Comments 6

  1. Excellent advice. When I finaled in one contest I received scores of 98, 98, 59. How could one story bring such different scores? Because reading is subjective and not everyone will like what you write. That contest let me know not everyone would love my words.

  2. I almost swore off contests when someone gave me a mark of 50 in the grammar section for a missing comma. Perhaps if judges had more specific guidelines on how to mark small errors it could improve consistency in scoring. Overall, I’ve enjoyed wonderful, constructive comments, but I’ve also had some unintentionally harsh (or uninformed) ones. I will enter again–there is always something to learn through the process. I’ve heard that you should pay the most attention to anything that is pointed out by more than one judge. That’s what I’ll be looking for.

  3. I always won when I entered contests.
    If I got a high score, I felt validated.
    If I got a useful comment, I felt educated.
    If I got a comment by someone whose comments were not remotely close to the vaguest possibility of being useful… or even charitable… I felt I was being given a chance to develop patience and forbearance.
    Mind you, when I got comments from that last category, I often had to go clean the house, scrubbing floors and dealing with clutter while muttering under my breath, before I could try to be patient and forbearing. Still, after a particularly harsh contest I would end up with a very neat house. That’s always good.

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