Questions to ask yourself before entering a romance writing contest

The first year I started writing romance, I entered shed-loads of writing contests. The next year, I was more selective and had learned that not all writing contests are equal.

This weekend I spent some time looking through dozens of romance writing contests that have their deadlines over the next few months, and I found myself judging the contests themselves based on several criteria.

For those of you thinking about entering romance writing contests, my best advice would be this: First decide what you want out of the contest.

That will help you select the best contests for you.

Winner's Circle
The place to be

Here are some of the criteria I use to decide which contests to enter. I’ll also mention a couple of contests that I think are good examples of meeting these criteria, but please note that that doesn’t mean that I have personal experience of or endorse those particular contests. Also, some of these contest deadlines have passed for 2012, but you may want to know about them for the future.

You can find a really helpful list of upcoming romance writing contests on Stephie Smith’s website.

1. How much first-round feedback do they give you?

Some contests are judged by two readers in the first round. Some are judged by three or four.

Some contests will make sure that at least one first-round judge is published (though you might want to ask what their definition of published is, as it may differ from yours). Many will say that their first-round judges are “trained”. I’ve been a first-round judge for several contests, and none of them have offered me training (I only mention that so you don’t put too much stock in having “trained” judges).

Take a look at the sample score sheets that most contests include on their site. Does it guide the judge in giving you very specific feedback, or does it just ask for general thoughts on what works and what could be improved?

If you’re just starting out as a writer, or you don’t have a regular critique group giving you feedback, the first-round judging is probably the most valuable thing a writing contest can give you. At this point in your career, you might not be entering to win but to get an honest opinion from readers who don’t know you. But be warned – not all judges are very caring or diplomatic in the way they deliver feedback.

2. Who are the final judges?

For me, this is the most important criterion. The first thing I look at when deciding to enter a contest is which agents/editors will read my entry if I final.

If it’s not an agent or publishing house I think would be a good fit for me, then I won’t waste my money. For me, the real prize of these contests is getting sample chapters in front of the people I’d like to represent my work.

Some contests have more than one final judge, giving you an even better chance of discovering someone who will love your work. For example:

3. What kind of scene do you want feedback on?

Many contests ask for the first 15-50 pages of your manuscript, but what if you want specific feedback on the first meet, or first kiss? What if you’re eager to improve your sex scene?

There are contests that focus on these specific scenes. For example:

4. What’s the value for money?

Entering contests can be addicting – at least, it can be for me – so I always ask myself how valuable a contest is. I judge that not just by how much first-round feedback I get and which professionals might see my entry if I final. I also judge it by how many pages I can enter relative to the cost, and whether there’s the possibility of a cash prize.

For me, it’s not worth it to pay $25 to get feedback on five pages if I can pay $25 and get feedback on 30 pages, or $35 to get feedback on 55 pages.

You’ll have to judge value for money yourself. But here are some contests that judge at least 50 pages of your manuscript and get you feedback before the deadline for the Golden Heart:

Winner's [1112]
NOT what I want to win
What’s the prize?
For me, the main prize is the possibility of getting in front of an agent or editor I think I’d work well with.

But if I’m on the fence about a contest, a cash prize always helps.

I’ve seen cash prizes up to $100 for romance writing contests.

I won’t try to list them here, but you can find out more about which contests offer a cash prize on Stephie Smith’s website.

Do you enter romance writing contests? What’s your favorite? Do you have any criteria that I didn’t include here?

By Kat

Kat Latham writes sexy contemporary romance, including the London Legends rugby series. With degrees in English lit and human rights, she loves stories that reflect the depth, humor and emotion of real life. She's a California girl living in the Netherlands with her baby girl and British husband.


  1. I just started doing it for the first time this year and at first I tried to enter everyone I could. I’ve now finaled in four, but I’ve also had others where I missed by a tad because I had a judge who just didn’t like my heroine’s voice. Now I only enter those that drop the lowest score.

    1. That’s a really good point, Angela. I’ve had the same experience and I’m definitely more drawn to contests that drop the lowest score in the first round. It’s so frustrating to get one low score, even though I know that’s more of an accurate reflection of what real-life readers will be like.

      1. Yep, I see the varied comments from judges as training ground for reviews– not everyone will like my characters or even my premise. I’ve literally had judges in the same contest exclaim over certain parts (in the enthusiastically positive) and have another say they didn’t like it and I should cut it. Usually my low scores are from judges on things that are subjective not structural/mechanics…

  2. This is one of my favorite posts by you, Kat, and that’s saying a lot, considering I’m the president of your Fan Club. (Love the snarky pictures.) I hadn’t thought about contests this way, but obviously I should. I agree with you and Angela both about getting a “Russian judge” – one judge who low-balls your score because you dropped a comma, or something equally trite. I quit entering contests for that reason. Your point about the goal being to grab the attention of a prospective agent/editor makes sense. Thanks for your insight and for the great info.

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