I'm gearing up to start writing after a bit of a hiatus. But rather than just jump in and start on a novel (which will take several months, at best, to create and even then it might not be very good) I thought I'd start by trying my hand at a few short stories.

One way that I'd like to see if they're any good is by submitting them to various contests, which can pay some good scratch and get you published.

But I don't really know if contests are an effective way to judge the quality of your work.

Putting aside the fact that short stories and flash fiction are different beasts from novels and novella, are contests an effective way to gauge the quality of your writing?

3 Answers 3


It very much depends on the quality of the contest, and that depends in turn on the quality of the judges and whether they provide any sort of feedback to the authors. "Did I win or not?" is pretty crude measure of quality.

I was at the Writers of the Future awards ceremony recently here in Los Angeles, and I was struck by the fact that every winner mentioned how much the feedback they got from the contest judges and organizers had helped them improve the quality of their writing, to the point where here they were, two or four or size stories later, prize-winning authors. In this case, it doesn't hurt a bit that the judges are themselves established best-selling authors (not critics or academics), stellar names in the F&SF field.

A local writers group (many of the WOTF winners thanked their writers groups) is a much faster way to get feedback on the effectiveness of your writing than a contest.

  • I guess you have better contests in LA, or I've never had exposure to any good ones that are here in Seattle. Commented May 4, 2012 at 6:41
  • 1
    If I was a bit more urban, I would agree with your statement about the local writers group. Despite living in a great little college town, the local writers group here is more like a snobby elitist clique. Despite having a shout-out in the weekly freebie asking for new members, when I showed up it was clear that I was not what they were looking for. It was as if I was Applebee's steak and potatoes and they were locally grown free range organic tofu granola. In other words, the local writers group is a great idea for a lot of people, but I don't think that'll work for me.
    – Jed Oliver
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 16:58
  • Ouch. I know exactly what you mean. Some contests are the same way, and the fact that you'd never win no matter if your story was brilliant is what I had in mind when I said "It depends on the quality of the contest..." Commented May 5, 2012 at 2:04

Not usually, in my experience, and the reason why is that they are usually judged by objective standards with an objective set of criteria and you're really only going to win the kind of contest with those kinds of guidelines if you tailor your writing to what the judges are going to be looking for. With this in mind, when you submit to that kind of a contest, are you really submitting your own work? If not, then clearly whatever the judges say isn't a reflection of your words, it's a reflection of your words tailored to a specific format. It's like the difference between writing an editorial or opinion piece, which you have a free hand with and can say mostly anything because it's your opinion, and a thesis paper where you're constrained to APA format and have to stick to the topic that your professor wants to see you write.

Another other issue is that my appreciation of writing, and think many other's also, is based on subjectivity and my own appreciation, without much consideration for objective guidelines or prescriptive rules, whereas a judge should be looking for all of the elements specified in the rules for the contest and may appreciate your story, but won't give that as feedback necessarily if they feel you skirted the edge of one of the rules too closely.

Finally, all of the contests I've seen in the past few years look to me like scams where they are trying to get as much free writing as possible to publish without paying for it.

That said, if you can find a contest or a set of submission guidelines that are a fit for your writing without changing your style at all, or with minimal changes, then I'd say yes, it can be a good way to get an idea of the quality of your writing.

If it were me, however, rather than look for a contest I'd be looking for publications like magazines, anthologies, blogs, and other small distribution channels that are looking for submissions, and trying to get what's called a beta reader to give me feedback. The publications I've seen tend to pay 4-8 cents a word and tend to want 2k-6k words, so you'll be getting paid to be an author, and in general I've seen publications submission guidelines be much looser than contest entry rules so you'll have a more of a free hand to express your words.

YMMV, I hope this helps.



Contests might be a way to judge salability or popular appeal. The only thing that the outcome of a contest will tell you FOR SURE is what the judges like.

Write something that you absolutely love. That you can't live without. The thing that you can't leave the earth without committing to paper. Then write the next thing and make it better. It's the only way.

  • In general, it's considered bad manners on Stack Exchange sites to post answers that are essentially the same as answers that are already there. If everyone did this, we'd have 20 duplicate answers on each question. If you want to talk about it head into the chat room where some of the regulars hang out. Commented May 4, 2012 at 22:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.