I did a few contests when I first started submitting my work. The first few I did were both helpful and brutal. There were some good points and bad points. I learned a lot from them- the one major thing I learned was that not all judges are created equally. I also learned that there are people who are going to love my voice and there are people who are going to hate my voice. And that’s ok.
The judges I learned the most from on how to improve my work were the published writers. They seemed to want to help and encourage. The ones that were snarky and even mean in their comments were always unpublished (in my experience)- the question in my mind became “Are these people being mean because they don’t know better or because they want to be discouraging?”
When I judge contests, even if I think the story needs a lot of work, I try my best to be kind, helpful and encouraging. I know how hurt I was at some comments and I don’t want to crush anyone’s soul. One comment I’ll never forget was the judge that said the heroine in my story needed to get over her heartache sooner and not be so upset (this was a 20 page contest)- this judge actually said she wished the best friend character was the heroine. Well, HELLO? the heroine had her heart broken by her fiance and she was supposed to be over it in less than 20 pages? And if the best friend was the heroine, where would be the story? A happy, larky heroine with no angst would be a boring tale, wouldn’t it?
This particular judge hated the whole 20 pages. This story ended up being the first book I sold and I didn’t change a thing that she said was bad about it. The last contest I entered was this one. I don’t plan to enter any more as I didn’t really get my money’s worth after the first one or two I entered. They are good tools if you get good judges with helpful criticism, but it seems to me that there are a lot of contests with untrained judges. These are not helpful to the new writer and I wish there was a training ground for judges so that people who invest in contests could really take away something worthwhile.