On Twitter this weekend, Viv (@VivWestlake) asked me:

Curious @ your opinion: When contest responses are polarized, how does writer know what to change/edit? 2 judges love & 2 hate.

There’s no simple answer to this so I didn’t try to respond on Twitter. The truth is, contests can be an excellent source of feedback for authors, but they can also do a terrible disservice to authors as well. Why a disservice? An author who wins a contest may think this means their book is ready for publication, doesn’t need more editing, or is the best of the best. But as most editors and agents who’ve ever judged contests can tell you…sometimes picking a winner is not always about picking the best of the best, but the one that’s least badly written (that was a little painful to type but I’ve talked about it before here as did Jessica Faust of BookEnds nearly 3! years ago* ). Not all contests get a lot of entries, and not all get a lot of quality entries, so a contest win can instill a false sense of…complacency…on some occasions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of reputable contests where competition is fierce, but there are a lot of contests in general, so which one you enter, and win, does make a difference.

So what should you do with contest feedback? First, when you enter you should pay attention to who’s judging. If you don’t respect the judges, whether it’s their experience, background, professional reputation, etc., how valuable with that win–and any associated requests and feedback be to you? I would say that what you do with the feedback is much going to depend on who gave the feedback and your opinion of their overall skills.

One thing to remember–something I say in every pass letter–publishing is a subjective business. And writing is both an incredibly simple thing (write a good book) and an incredibly complicated thing (here are all the rules to follow and things to know about the craft of writing and here all all the things you have to include to make the book good). Because it’s simple, sometimes your feedback will be simple like “I loved this, I couldn’t put it down, you have a compelling voice”. Because it’s complicated, sometimes your feedback will be just as confusing and complicated. Not the least of which is because writers often misinterpret and misunderstand the “rules” they’ve learned. So your feedback might look like “your writing is too passive, you have too much infodump, your dialogue is stilted and your conflict isn’t apparent”.

Of course, there are some things that aren’t quite as subjective; if two judges told you that you had typos and grammar errors in your writing, but two judges marked you as perfect, I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss the judges that told you there were errors. Get someone who’s good at that sort of thing to take a look. Then again, you’d be surprised just how often people see “editing errors” that aren’t errors at all. But that’s a post for another day…

On the other hand, if two judges tell you that your writing is too choppy while two judges loved your “voice” then you’re just stuck in the middle of subjective hell. Welcome. This is where you (and I think Viv) have to wonder…what the heck do I do now? You listen to the people whose opinions you trust. Maybe it’s 1 of the 4 judges. Maybe it’s none of the judges at all, but 2 of your critique partners and a beta reader.

Do you dismiss the feedback out of hand? Well, if you do, just make sure it’s not because your writing ego is getting in the way (admit it, you know it happens).

Do you give weight to the feedback? Maybe, if you trust the knowledge and opinion of the person giving it.

A few other things: this is made harder if the feedback is anonymous. If you’re getting the same feedback from multiple sources (multiple = more than one) then you might want to think on it a little more carefully. And if you’re questioning contest feedback, it’s time to start asking yourself if you’re entering contests you trust (though it’s totally possible to get bad feedback even from contests, and judges, you trust). I’d probably also be remiss if I didn’t mention that contest wins can be an excellent opportunity to get in front of the editor/agent judges whose eye it might otherwise be difficult to catch in a pile of slush queries.

And that’s my long non-answer to Viv’s question. Bet it will be awhile before she asks another!

*Agent Nathan Bransford also had an excellent post on contests last December.

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