I consider it a privilege to judge a writing contest. I don't judge very many because it's so time-consuming, but there are a couple I never say no to when asked to help.
Most contest entries consist of the first twenty to twenty-five pages of the manuscript, and a synopsis. I probably spend about 3 to 4 hours on each entry because it takes me that long to write my comments on the manuscript pages and on the score sheet. I sincerely want to help these writers by offering as much feedback as possible, and like a critique, I always deliver my comment constructively and make sure to praise whenever it's warranted.
I absolutely love judging the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Colorado Gold Contest. The deadline for entries was June 1 and I received my judging packet of entries last week. Of course I plowed right in. They're all wonderful! And I don't mean they're all winners, but every one of them is a creative, honest, expressive effort from writers who are serious enough about their work to subject it to the scrutiny of a stranger. And it's awesome! I'm honored to read the words written by these as-yet unpublished writers. It's fun, and it's exciting. And it's humbling!
I'm not finished yet. I like to savor these manuscripts, and I read slowly anyway. I do hope my suggestions and advice are helpful to these writers. I never know because once I send in my judged entries, I don't hear anything back, but if one of the great ones (they're all "good") is a finalist, I'll know. And I'll congratulate them at the awards banquet during the Denver conference in September. I'm really looking forward to attending this year (as I do every year).
If you're unpublished and thinking of entering a contest, the Colorado Gold is the best one I've found because judges are trained, and entrants usually know what they're doing. I've judged some contests where I faulted the sponsoring organization for not providing the education needed for the writers to create their best work. When I used to help judge RWA's Golden Heart, I was surprised by the poor quality of the manuscripts. It was difficult to get through them, but at least I didn't have to provide more than a number score, which was also sad for the entrants. They never get to know what might help their work be better. Maybe that's why the entries were so… not ready. How can a writer learn to do better if they don't know what they're doing wrong?
There are other RWA contests run by individual chapters that do let judges make comments on entries, and those are the ones I'd think writers should be most compelled to enter. But for some reason the more expensive and less helpful Golden Heart is the favorite among unpublished writers. Being a finalist is a big deal. Writers will even include their finalist status in their query letters! I could understand mentioning the Golden Heart if they'd won. But finalist? I don't understand the importance. In fact, I've heard countless agents express the same puzzled fascination with the "finalist" credit added to a writer's query letter. It makes no difference to most agents if a writer's peers like her work. But for what it's worth, I think it matters to a few agents who exclusively represent romance.
Contests are an excellent tool for the unpublished writer if you can find a good contest with good judges. After over ten years of judging the Colorado Gold, I consider myself a good judge. And I love doing it.