I'm not a big fan of writers' contests. The main purpose for writing organizations, such as regional chapters of RWA, to hold contests is to raise funds for their chapter.
I question the qualifications of some judges, who are sometimes simply "PRO" status - that is, they've submitted their own work to an editor or agent, thus qualifying for "PRO" status through the RWA, but they aren't necessarily published or experienced.
And, going by the crazily diverse range in scores I've received, some judges don't "get" my work. Contest judging seems far too subjective for my taste. If a judge doesn't "get" what I'm trying to say, then most likely they aren't my target audience.
For example, I brought a story to my critique group a few weeks ago and the prologue included some rather disturbing imagery and some foul language. One of my critique partners asked, "Don't you think you may lose some readers here?"
I responded, "Then those people aren't my target audience."
As readers, we all have our favorite genres and types of stories. While some people may be content to stick strictly within those confines, I prefer to read a wide range of story types, often depending on my mood. Some days I want sweet, funny romance. Other days - my cranky days - I'm in the mood for some grisly murder mysteries or somber, gritty realism.
My critique partner had grown accustomed to the stories I typically bring for review - funny, sweet romance. Romantic comedy. And some quirky slice-of-life stories. So my experiment with writing a darker story took her by surprise. It took some readjusting in her thinking, but she and our other critique partner shifted gears nicely and both gave my chapter a constructive critique.
But in contests, I suspect not all judges have this capacity - to switch gears from what they are accustomed to reading in order to effectively and constructively review something a little different, something that doesn't necessarily follow the tried-and-true rules of a particular genre. (For those of you who write romance, you KNOW all about the rules of the genre!)
Usually a judge is compatible with the category she's judging; i.e., she's comfortable reading that type of story and it's ideally one of her favorites. But often, contest coordinators scramble for judges, sticking judges into categories for which they aren't particularly suited. The results? Contests scores that vary too greatly and comments that demonstrate the judge's lack of qualifications and basic understanding of that category of story.
So I'm not a big fan of contests but because I've got this manuscript that I've sent out twice and I'm trying to determine my next move. I've entered it into a contest just to see what kind of crazy results it garners. After all, contest judges are readers. Hopefully I'll get at least one judge who gets it. And maybe I'll get a better idea of what's not working in the story.