I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Monday, March 12, 2012

4 Tips for Using Contest Feedback to Improve Your Writing

Guest post by Jeanne Takenaka

I've had some firsts this last year. The one that stretched me the most has been learning the craft of writing. I entered my first writing contest last spring -- The Frasier -- hosted by My Book Therapy (MBT). I went in with goals, nurtured a few hopes, and did my best to leave expectations sitting on my back deck.

I endeavored to not think about the contest every day between "Send Day" and "Receive Day." The afternoon the email arrived in my inbox, eagerness jumped up and down in my heart. How did I do?

After reading the introductory letter from Susan May Warren, I prayed that the Lord would help me have a teachable heart. My goal had been to learn how to become a better writer. I read the judges' comments and studied my scores. The positive remarks encouraged me. The suggestions for improvement gave me much to contemplate. I read through them twice. Then I set the pages aside for a day or two, allowing the judges' thoughts to simmer in my head.

Being an analytical person, I considered how to best benefit from the gold I'd received from the judges. I created a chart that showed each category and sub-category. Inputting the judges' scores for each sub-category, I evaluated them considering a few things:

  • I figured that the sub-categories where both judges' scores were the same reflected a consistent strength or weakness in my writing. If there was a big discrepancy between the two scores, I decided to speak with a trusted mentor on how to decipher what that meant.
  • Looking at the categories where both judges gave a lower score showed me areas I need to develop my writing skills. I considered both the positive and negative teaching comments. Each judge offered specific suggestions for enhancing my writing.
Though not everyone is an analyzer, here are a few things I learned from my contest experience:
  1. Identify what will best help you use contest scores to better your writing skills. Charts may not be your thing. Maybe highlight the positive comments in green and the "needs improvement" comments in yellow. 
  2. Don't focus only on the negative. When judges offer positive comments and suggestions for improvement, believe in your writing strengths as well.
  3. Add the proverbial grain of salt. Remember scores tell you something about your writing, but judges are subjective because, well, they're human. If you disagree or don't understand a score, talk with someone you trust -- a mentor or critique partner -- for clarification.
  4. Above all, have a teachable spirit. Remember, God gave you your story, and He'll help you write it with help from others.
How have you taken contest scores and used them to become a better writer?


  1. Yay! I was hoping I'd get to be the first to comment on your post! It's such a pleasure to have you "guest" posting! And what a great topic, too!

    Your suggestions have prompted me to go back and take a second look at my contest feedback. I remember being stunned that my scores were as low as they were. Not that I think I'm the best writer out there, but I spent SO MUCH TIME pouring over my submission. How could it not be perfect? (It doesn't help that I HATE getting less than 100% on anything...) My low contest scores (one set for the Genesis, and one set a few weeks later for the Frasier) were a huge blow to my ego, and I began to question my ability to write. I don't think I realized until this very moment that the power I have given to those scores could be what holds me back from successfully writing. (Well, that and feedback from a very direct literary agent who shall remain nameless.)

    So thank you, Jeanne. I appreciate your encouragement and directions on how to face those score sheets again. Especially the "grain of salt" part. I had one judge (ACFW Genesis) who canned me for the way I portrayed my main character's feelings about being adopted. This judge told me she had an adopted daughter and I didn't know what I was talking about. Except I'M adopted, and I wrote from my own experiences, so obviously I have a little insight! So yes, grain of salt: very important.

    Thanks again, Jeanne, for hanging out with us today and for sharing your heart. You rock!

  2. Jeanne,
    Welcome to the Ponderers! It's great to have you as a guest blogger.
    I love all your tips, but I especially like the one about having a teachable spirit. That's what it should be about -- learning to be a better writer. Yes, winning a contest is fun too. The best! But when the day is over, when the contest is over, even the winner learns something more about themselves as a writer (if he/she takes time to evaluate the scores.)

  3. Heidi, you're so sweet. :) Thanking God that this post helped you. I appreciate your thoughts and sharing.

    It can be difficult to remember that scores judges give to our writing are not a reflection on us as people, as writers, can't it? Don't let those comments cripple you from writing the story God has given you to share. It sounds like a beautiful one. I look forward to reading it. :)

  4. Thank you to all the Ponderers for having me today. I'm honored. :)

    Beth, you're right. Having a teachable spirit is what helps us to grow as writers, and in life. I'm thankful for people like you who have helped me keep a good perspective on this writing journey. :)

  5. Yay I love having you here today, Jeanne! You have a lot of wisdom to share. Like Beth said, your note about having a teachable spirit is so good. That's something that carries over into life in general.

  6. Very good and helpful, Jeanne. I'm embarrassed to say I've put away low contest scores longer than you before I could go back and glean the pointers they were saying, and then start the equivalent of painful physiotherapy to strengthen weak muscles. Thanks and blessings, Jeanne.

  7. Jeanne, great to have you here. I love your chart idea. Not being the analytical sort, I've never thought to do that. Now I will.

    Last year the judge who gave me a low score in the Frasier basically said the same thing as the Genesis judge who gave me a low score. And like Dee, it took me longer than a day or two before I revisited their comments. But I followed their advice and it made my story much stronger.
    Great post!

  8. I'll definitely have to remember your tips when I receive my first contest feedback later this year! :D

  9. Melissa, it's fun being here. When I started following blogs, this one was my first. I glean so much from you ladies!

    One thing I'm learning with writing is that I will always have something to learn--so why not do it the easy way, and be teachable. I hate repeating mistakes. :)

  10. Dee, you are such an encourager. :) Love your analogy of strengthening weak muscles--in this case the writing kind. You have such a gift with words, and you use it well.

  11. Pat, good for you--moving beyond low scores and making them work for you. I can't wait (though I know I have to) to read your story one day. I know it will be incredible, just based on what I heard at Deep Thinkers. :)

  12. Lindsay, good for you being brave and entering contests. It kind of feels like you're putting a part of yourself out there for others to evaluate, but remembering they're not judging you, only your entry is a good way to go. I found it so helpful last year to take what was offered by judges and use it to improve weak areas in my writing. :)

  13. Hi Jeanne, such a good post! I enter writing contests for the feedback from published authors, hoping they will point out the weaknesses in my writing (so I can improve), and if there are any strengths or at least stronger areas, help me recognize those so I don't throw the baby out with the bath water. (Which I tend to do.)

    You're so right about the teachable spirit. Without it, how can one learn from the experience?

    It does become confusing when published authors' comments diverge hugely, and for me that's a matter for prayer, trying to discern which of the comments I am to heed. Like you, I make a table and compare all the comments, usually right away, because I am so eager to learn how to write better. I don't discount all negative comments or judges who say they hated the story (yep, one pubbed author wrote that once in a contest I entered.) I just chalk that up to the fact that we don't all read the same genres, types of writing, or like everything everyone writes.
    So many times winning a contest doesn't lead to a publication. It can be a boost, but God can place those that didn't win with publishing houses too.

    What DOES disappoint me is entering a contest and not receiving some sort of feedback from the judges that I can use to grow as a writer. I deeply appreciate those who take the time to show me why something I did was weak, and how to improve it, or at least give me enough feedback that I can begin to figure that one out.

  14. Paula, I love your attitude about contests. You've put practical application to what a teachable spirit looks like when entering contests. :) I haven't had a judge say they "hated" my story, yet, but I hope that if/when that comment comes my way I can maintain the same mindset you have.

    I agree with you: I want feedback--positive and negative so I can learn how to become a better writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  15. Welcome to the Ponderers, Jeanne and great tips! We all really need thick skin in this business. Most of the time after the punches have dimmed a bit, I can see what the judges are talking about and the revision is all the better!

  16. Jeanne, great post! I loved your comment about a teachable heart. Sometimes that takes as much patience as learning the craft.

    Judges don't enjoy giving lower scores, but they're necessary to help writers know where weak areas are in their manuscripts.

  17. Terri, I completely agree with you. It seems it takes those low scores to help develop that thick skin, doesn't it? You're right about a little time helping us to see how the revisions judges suggest can help make our stories better.

  18. Lisa, thanks for the perspective from the juddges' point of view. It's good to remember that they aren't bent on giving entries low scores. :) They want to help writers to improve writing and story craft. I appreciate your thoughts!

  19. Jeanne, You got some great advice. Thanks so much for this post!

    I think contest judges are like potential readers. If they don't like something, then readers won't either. With negative feedback, I try to discern if it's valid. Can I make changes to win that judge/reader over? But you can't please everyone. You have to write the story God puts on your heart.

  20. Roxanne, such good points. It can be a tricky balance to discern between the feedback that is valid and will improve the story, and that which may just be personal preference. :) So good to see you here!

  21. Charts? Highlighters? I'm so impressed. :-) Great ideas, Jeanne! Thanks for posting.

    One contest entry, I received a 99 and a 59. Or was it 49? Anyway, there was a shocking amount of points in between. But you know what? I needed both of those judges. The 99 to tell me that yes, this project that was (and still is) so precious to me is worth pursuing. It needs to be told, and I need to be the one to tell it. And the 49/59/whatever told me that, to do it justice, I was going to have to do a whole lot more work. :-) But I needed to hear both things.

    I've heard you're supposed to ignore the highest and lowest scores. In my case, they were the ones that helped me the most.

  22. Jeanne,

    These are such awesome suggestions. I always look forward to my critiques. It is a time to grow and learn and have your blind spots removed ;)