Monday, October 11, 2021

Checklist for Entering Contests


Hey kids! Do you know what time it is?

It's contest time!

One thing almost all published authors have in common is that we got our feet wet in the publishing industry by entering contests. 

What does that mean? I believe that learning to navigate the writing contest world is great training for becoming a successful author!
Opportunities abound for entering contests! One reason for the timing of this post is because the deadline for ACFW's First Impressions Contest is THIS FRIDAY! OCTOBER 15th!

So this post is your head's up!

This is a rewrite of a post Pam Hillman did *way too many* years ago – but contest time is here again, so I thought it was time to bring Pam’s fabulous post out of the archives, dust it off, update it, and bring it out again!

So with Pam’s permission, here’s her updated post:

Checklist for Entering Contests
by Pam Hillman/Jan Drexler

My former boss always said that my attention to detail was what made me good at my job. And just for the record, I quit my former job a few years ago to write, work in the Christian publishing world, and manage the books on the family farm. It wasn't like I was fired from that day job! Just sayin' :)

So, this slightly OCD trait also comes in handy when preparing manuscripts to send out, whether to contests, agents, or editors. But if you’re not detail-oriented, not to worry. Here are some tips to help keep you on track.

Keep in mind that some of the tips below do not apply to all contests. This list of tips is to help you get in the habit of doing all the steps every time you enter a contest, so that you can whip out an entry in a matter of hours. If something doesn't apply, you just mark it off your list.

Once you’ve got the content of your manuscript and your synopsis polished to a shine and the deadline is approaching, then:

1) Review the big picture rules

a. Does your manuscript fit neatly into one of the categories?
b. Do you know who the finalist judges are?

c. Have you looked at a sample score sheet if available?

d. When is the deadline?

2) Review the rules specific to your manuscript and your synopsis

a. Check the margins

b. Check font and font size

c. Check to see if there is a title page. A lot of online contests have moved away from title pages, but it never hurts to check the rules, just in case.

d. Check header. What exactly does the contest require in the header? What does the contest forbid in the header (like your name or pseudonym)?

e. Double-check the contest's formatting rules. Do they have a formatting example? Check it out!  

3) There are few contests, agents, or editors that require you to mail in your entry but keep these things in mind in case you hit one of those.

a. Did you include enough books or copies of your manuscript? If books for a published contest, did you sign them?

b. Did you double-TRIPLE-check the mailing address?

c. Pay a bit extra for Delivery Confirmation. You'll be glad you did. 

d. And especially if you are mailing in your entry, you might want to print out the mailing address for one last check when you get to the post office. In your excitement, it’s much too easy to get to the post office and seal that sucker up, forgetting all about the return postage and/or your check.

Entering unpublished contests have changed a lot over the years as the bulk of them have gone online. On one hand, the process is much, much easier and cheaper, especially since you don't have to print or mail anything. Isn't that a blessing? Contests with 3-5 print copies of a 20-25 page manuscript added a chunk of change to someone's contest budget. Also, for you young whippersnappers, us oldies had to pay for printing, postage to mail our entries, and a SASE envelope with enough postage for the contest to return all our judged entries. I like online much better.

But online contests don't come without problems. Slow internet, incompatible software, corrupted files, and failure to confirm your entry or payment can knock you out of a contest.

A year or so before I sold, I found out about a contest that was low on inspirational entries, so with hours before the deadline, I entered two manuscripts. One went through fine, but for some reason the other one kept converting from 35 pages on my computer to 39 on the coordinator's computer. Same two computers and the same coordinator as the other manuscript, minutes apart. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen and neither of us could fix it. The coordinator bent over backwards to help, but in the end, I had to make a decision. In desperation, I chopped 5 pages off the end, and sent it in with 2 minutes to spare. The manuscript was within the page count at that point and wasn't disqualified. (It finaled and actually won the contest. Go figure...)

Once a contest lost my digital entry. Just literally lost it. I can't remember if they gave me a refund or if they had someone read for me. In the course of writing this post, I found another one that I'm still not sure I ever got the results on. Let it go! Let it go! It never bothered me anyway....

Always, always, always make sure you use an email address that you check regularly and especially check your email after the fact if you end up entering a contest with mere hours to spare. Contest coordinators are amazing at bending over backwards to let people fix issues, but in fairness to other entrants, once the deadline has passed, there's nothing they can do. Stay on top of your entry and don't be disqualified for something that could be prevented just by being aware of your email trail.

Generally when you enter a contest, you will receive at least two emails. Possibly more.

1) Payment confirmation. Most of the time, this email will come from PayPal as that's the go-to for most online payments these days. PayPal allows non-users to pay with a debit or credit card, but the email will still come from PayPal.
2) Entry confirmation receipt. This receipt will be from group/chapter hosting the contest OR the contest coordinator's private email, depending on the software the contest is using. It confirms that the contest coordinator received your entry. Again, generally speaking, #1 and #2 go hand in hand and are automated responses when you complete your entry. This email will usually let you know if you need to look for additional emails.
3) Additional emails might land in your inbox once contest coordinators have laid eyes on your manuscript pages and made sure they meet the guidelines.

By checking your email, you ensure that you've completed the process, sent in your manuscript and received payment. The best laid plans can go awry even after you do everything perfectly, hit submit, but then go off to celebrate your achievement... only to find out that there was a glitch with your PayPal account. 99% of the time, you will receive an email confirmation immediately from PayPal. If you have time to wait 24 hours, do so. If the deadline is looming, it wouldn't hurt to check on the status of your entry.

It never hurts to check and double check everything. You’ll feel better, your package will be neat and tidy, and the coordinator will be forever grateful.

Jan here – I’ll add one more thing to Pam’s great advice at this point. Don’t…please, just don’t…make sending in your contest submission the last item on your to-do list before you head out on a week-long break from the internet! If the contest coordinator needs to get in contact with you, you need to be reachable. (You wouldn’t believe how often that happens!)

Then you sit back and wait for the results...or...

better yet, write another book!!!

Jan here again - I mentioned the First Impressions contest above. You can find out all the details of that contest for newbie, pre-published authors HERE! And that deadline is THIS FRIDAY! 

Another ACFW contest for unpublished/pre-published authors is the Genesis. You have a little while to get ready for this contest, but you MUST have a completed manuscript to enter. The contest opens in early January 2022, and the deadline will be in March. Details for the 2021 contest are here.

And if you're itching to learn about more contests, be sure to sign up for Tina Radcliffe's newsletter. She scours the interwebs to bring us the details! Here's all the info you need: Inside Edition

So, let's talk contests!

Any contest war wounds? Lost submissions? You sent in your fee, but forgot to send in the manuscript/books? You sent in everything except your fee? You entered your manuscript in the least likely category that it could ever possibly final in? 'fess up! :)

Or are you brand new to contests? Would you...could you...take the plunge into the contest waters?

Just remember - contests are how many of the original Seekers sailed off Unpubbed Island!



  1. Good morning, Seekerville!
    We have chocolate on the buffet this morning - hot chocolate, chocolate croissants, chocolate chip muffins, and even chocolate sundaes! Because there's nothing like chocolate to soothe frazzled nerves!

    Let's talk about contest experiences!

    For me, there's nothing like the angst that accompanies my finger hovering over the "send" button. And then once the entry is sent, I work hard to put it out of my mind. No second guessing! And that's where the chocolate comes in!

  2. Morning! Yes, hitting 'send' is the worst! Contests are a great way to get your writing out there. I entered a couple of contests last year, but I don't really have anything polished this year for the First Impressions. I still have a few days to decide, I guess.

  3. I will keep this post. I hope someday I am ready to enter these.

    1. Just remember that you don't need to have a finished manuscript for First Impressions. First five pages and a short synopsis. That's it.

      You really should consider entering - the feedback from the judges can be SO valuable!

    2. Even my first five pages aren't ready for a contest.

  4. Thanks Jan and Pam for this great info! Is contest a synonym for nervousness? Just asking ;) When I think of writing a book, I think of creative expression, which I don't lack in, and I sit down with confidence, write, send it through several editing processes, and then self-publish. When I think of contest, I cower down and crawl under the covers! I have only submitted to one contest before and I must agree the feedback was very valuable, but the process unnerved me. Being computer illiterate doesn't help matters! It seems that most of the contests I have read about only want the first chapter or so, and that is really just the intro...the action and drama that I want to make known doesn't start until a few chapters later!
    Okay, I will slip quietly back under my security blanket now...I have test anxiety and isn't that part of the word conTEST? I hope to keep reading the Seekerville posts until you all teach me how to pull my big girl panties on! Love this group!

    1. Lynne, you made me laugh!

      Yes, the word "test" is part of "contest," but don't think of it as a test! Instead, think of it as practice for submitting your book to your dream agent or editor!

      Meanwhile, enjoy your security blanket. :-) We love seeing you here!

  5. Perfect timing on this post, Jan. Contests are a great way to get feedback on your writing. I entered many a contest before publication and never finaled, but the feedback I received was priceless. Occasionally the comments were rather harsh, but after I finished whining and reread those comments, I worked hard to either overcome the objection or implement what the judge had suggested. It's all a part of the honing and polishing process, but worth every tear and every penny.

    1. Contests are a great way to learn to hone our craft - sometimes painful, but like you pointed out, looking past that "ouch" to the meat of the comment is worth it!

    2. Mindy, your comment made me think of something. A few years ago, I destroyed TONS of returned contest entries, BUT I only tossed those that didn't have any comments, and I did keep all my scoresheets.

      A blog post revisiting some of those entries, the scores, and the comments alongside the finished version of the books in print might make a jam-up great blog post. Now to figure out where I put those scoresheets from 10+ years ago.

      Nah... I know exactly where they are. Which shouldn't surprise anyone! lol

    3. That's a great idea, Pam. I'll be looking forward to that post!

  6. Wow, Jan, you made my old post shine. A couple of things that Jan and I both forgot to mention, because it's such a tiny little thing (now the song Golden Ring will run through my head all day!!), but...

    As the post said, the bulk of contests are online these days, meaning you submit and pay for your entry all from your computer (which is wonderful, btw).

    But this instant gratification can also pose problems....

    1) PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO THE TIME ZONE These days, the entry process of many contests is automated. When the contest rules state that a contest ends on a certain date and at a certain time (See below for the First Impressions), submissions literally close then. The contest coordinator doesn't manually flip a switch or choose to accept or deny more entries. Just keep that in mind and try not to cut it too close to the hard deadline. (Having said that, I've cut it close, REALLY CLOSE a few times, praying all the time that my computer didn't freeze up or my payment didn't go through, but the stress was CRAZY! I don't advise it. lol)

    From the First Impressions rules: "Contest closes: October 15, 2021 at 4:00 PM central time."

    2) Okay, there was a #2.... hmmm... You would be amazed at the % of entries that arrive in the last few days before a contest closes, bringing with that deluge a few glitches that need to be worked out. Contest coordinators are extremely busy during this time. They are working hard to answer emails and "put out fires", and they probably work through the emails and issues in the order they are received, as that is the fair way to do things. Be patient with them. Or better yet, enter a few days early.

    3) It's not as scary as it sounds... In my experience on both sides of the contest coin for over 23 years now, I'd say that 90% plus of entries go through without a hitch. 9% of the issues are worked out due to the hard work of the coordinators and authors (who use this handy-dandy checklist and check email) and less than 1% end up simply running out of time before the deadline.

    1. Thanks for the add-ons, Pam! Great points!

      Which reminds me, as a contest coordinator, I need to go check the new entries in my category! Yes, this week will be very busy. :-)

  7. Great info on contests! Thanks, Pam.

    Contests are a great way to get feedback on your submission and also on your story premise. I used them in my pre-pubbed days, and because of winning the TOUCHED BY LOVE CONTEST, I snagged an editor's interest that led to publication.

    I must admit that I haven't entered a contest in so, so long. Maybe that should be a goal for this year. Hmmm?

    Good luck to all the writers who submit their manuscripts to the First Impressions Contest!!!


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