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The Etiquette of Contest Thank-You Notes

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back when I entered writing contests, there was only one option for thank-you notes: handwritten. In 2006, the last time I entered, we were still sending in hard copies of our manuscripts and getting handwritten comments back; so an e-mail thank-you note would have been considered unseemly.

However, now that contests have gone completely electronic, so have thank-you notes. But I’ve seen a few things—publicly and privately in notes addressed to me—that made me want to talk a little bit about the etiquette of writing contest thank-you notes.

Writing thank-you notes is not mandatory, but is something you should consider doing.
Just like following up with an agent or editor after a meeting (whether at a conference or elsewhere), or even someone who interviewed you for a job, sending a thank-you note to each of your contest judges and category coordinator(s) is plain and simple common courtesy.

Make it private, not public.
Just as you wouldn’t send one mass e-mail to everyone who attended your baby shower or wedding with a message saying “thank you all for coming and for giving us presents,” you shouldn’t send a general e-mail out to the mailing list of your writing group thanking your judges. (“Thanks to everyone who judged. I got great feedback on my entry. It really means a lot to me.”) The judges whose feedback you now have spent their time on your entry—taking time away from their own writing, their own family, their own free time to read your entry and give you feedback that will hopefully not only lead to you improving your craft, but eventually getting published.

Write individual thank-you notes for each judge.
Following in the same vein as the above, don’t just write one generic thank you to be sent to all three of your judges. (“Thank you all so much for your hard work judging for the contest. It was a lot of work for you, I know. I really appreciate all your feedback and advice.”) With the amount of time each judge spent on your entry, the least you can do is send a personal, specific message to each one. We’re talking e-mail here, people. It’s not like you’re spending money on paper, envelopes, and stamps—just a few minutes out of your day to show your professionalism and gratitude.

Be sure to include the judge’s number and your entry’s number.
Look at your score sheet. Somewhere on it will be a judge number—HRJ1 or CRJ2 (for Historical Romance Judge 1 or Contemporary Romance Judge 2). The category coordinator will match the judge’s number up with the person’s name and forward your thank-you note on to that judge. By including your entry’s number in the thank-you note, it helps the judge know to what entry you’re referring when you send your thanks.

Remember, this is professional correspondence.
While we’re so accustomed to dashing off an e-mail and clicking send without another thought, a contest thank-you note should be given the same amount of time and effort you’d give a letter you’d send to an editor or agent. Keep it professional. Take the time to make it polished. Proofread it (and then proofread it again!)—and maybe even have someone else proofread it for you. Make sure there are no typos and that it’s punctuated properly. Show the judge that you have pride in yourself and your abilities—and that you have respect for the judge—by making the thank-you note a polished piece of professional correspondence.

Be specific with your thanks.
Even if the judge didn’t have much—or didn’t have much nice—to say, find something in their comments which you plan to implement or which was helpful to you. (“Thank you so much for pointing out to me that I entered this in the wrong category. I will go back and look at the genre guidelines to see where this story would fit.” or “Thank you so much for the information on commas and quotation marks. I’ll visit the websites you listed and make sure I learn the rules.”) Pick out one or two of the constructive pieces of the critique that you plan to apply or that were helpful to you and thank the judge specifically for those.

If needed, wait a little while before sending a thank-you note.
If a judge ripped your entry to shreds and told you, either in so many words or in a round-about way, that you’re an idiot for thinking you could ever write, you might want to wait a few days to a few weeks before composing a thank-you note to that person. Wait until you can approach it with grace and mercy. Thank the judge for his/her time and effort, and leave it at that.

Do NOT get defensive.
Unless you’re receiving across-the-board perfect scores, it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to get a score/comment on your entry with which you don’t agree. It’s also quite possible that you’re going to get a judge who is completely subjective and judges everything based on the fact that you didn’t write this the way she would have written it. One of the quickest ways to show this judge that you aren’t ready to be pursuing publication is if you get defensive in your thank-you note. By its very definition, the note you are writing is to thank the judge for his/her time and effort, not to start an argument with the judge on why the way you did it is right and why the judge should see it the way you do. It doesn’t matter if the judge is outright, blatantly WRONG. That’s not the point of what you’re doing. The point of what you’re doing is to show gratitude toward the people who took time out of their life to judge your contest entry. That’s it. And if you can’t come up with anything nice and non-defensive to say, better not to send a note at all than to prove how much you’re not ready for this industry.

Contest entrants: Do you send thank-you notes? What kinds of things do you say to your judges in the notes? Has a judge ever responded to you—leading to a conversation or possibly even a mentorship (short-term or long-term)?

Judges: Do you expect to receive thank-you notes? Have you ever received an argumentative/defensive note? (Or a passive aggressive one—you gave great advice, and I’ll be sure to pass it along if I ever see someone who needs it?) Do you ever respond to the entrants who send you thank-you notes?

  1. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 12:20 am

    Excellent post, Kaye. I have received a couple thank you notes, but I am torn on whether to respond to them. What’s standard? Is there a standard?

    Both of the notes I’ve received have been pretty generic, not really pointing out anything specific that I mentioned. But I still appreciated receiving the note.

    I did find it interesting that the two I’ve heard from were my top two scorers. I don’t know if that’s because those are the only two to receive their comment sheets back, or if the others didn’t like what I had to say. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for your tips. Great to keep in mind. Publishing is about great writing and great relationships. It’s important to build those relationships so when the writing is ready to go, there’s nothing standing in the way.


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:20 am

      I reply only if I think I can be of additional help to the writer. Which, of course, means I have to go back and look at the entry to find out what score I gave and what comments I made. One of the best back-and-forth e-mail conversations I ever had with an entrant came a couple of years ago when I gave my lowest score ever (a 30). I agonized over that score, but found out in the thank-you note that it was the first thing she’d ever written and even though I’d gone into GREAT detail on each of the areas of craft scored in the rubric, she needed even more basic questions answered. She didn’t expect me or ask me to mentor her. But that’s what it turned into—until she was ready to start taking the courses offered by ACFW and attend her first (small, regional) conference.


  2. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 12:27 am

    Im not a judge or entrant but this applies for other things in life also. When you mentioned the generic email to all it made me think of a group I am on who send encouragement cards. This is ok but the lady who sent to me would like daysprings or another ecard where you can put all the addresses in and the card goes to each person. This would not be so bad if she was sending to all Americans. Sending a generic ecard saying happy spring and how wonderful it is to be in the garden etc after a long winter is quite annoying to an Australian who is begrudgingly entering autumn and makes the Aussie wonder if they even though of who they were sending the card to.
    So I could fully understand receiving a generic thank you which is sent to all judges would be annoying.
    I am guilty of forgetting to say thanks at times for receiving a free book. I try send a note but sometimes it maybe after I read the book and then remember I should have said thanks and will say thanks when I write to the author.


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:22 am

      Don’t feel bad—we all forget to say thank you more often than we should. I’m horrible at it. If I hadn’t worked for a woman who is a stickler for thank-you notes (handwritten on nice stationery) for seven years, it’s a skill I never would have picked up on, because I never wrote TY notes before then. Even now it’s still hit-or-miss for me.


  3. Sheila permalink
    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 6:03 am

    I really needed this post today!


  4. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 6:07 am

    I am guilty. Guilty as charged. While I don’t write the same thank you for each judge, sometimes I write a generic one. I have entered contests where I got a really low score and the judge didn’t have much to say. There were no comments or suggestions within the manuscript and most of the scoresheet was blank. It was hard to know how to be personal.

    I wish I’d read this before I sent mine. Next time….


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:23 am

      Maybe there won’t be a next time . . . πŸ˜‰


  5. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:51 am

    Great post, Kaye. I recently entered my very first writing contest, and I am definitely sending thank-you notes to each judge. They won’t be lengthy, but I’ll make each one personal (thanking the judge and making at least one reference to a suggestion/comment I received). ~ Although I’m not a semi-finalist (no surprise to me, haha) I was quite relieved with my scores/comments. In fact, I was SO relieved I sent thank-you notes to the contest coordinators for their hard work and let them know I was pleased with the contest! πŸ™‚


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:24 am

      No, they don’t need to be lengthy. And thanks for reminding me about category coordinators–I added that to the post!


  6. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 9:08 am

    As an entrant and as a judge, thank you notes mean a great deal. You give good guidelines here, Kaye. In years past, in the Genesis, I’ve had some contact with at least one judge after the contest, no more than a few fun emails exchanged. It was great knowing more of her thoughts on my writing, which she offered freely without my asking, and I’ve saved all those emails for years. Very encouraging.


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:27 am

      One of the fun things for me is finding out who wrote the piece when they send the note—especially if it’s one that I liked. Last year, I discovered I’d read Pepper Basham’s contemporary romance without knowing it (we had fun chatting about the comments I made—although I admit, I did go back and look at what score I gave her and read back through my comments just to make sure I hadn’t said anything mean!). This year, I got a note from my highest scoring piece and was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar name attached to it. As Liz said, so much of publishing is relationship based—not just with editors and agents, but with other authors as well.


      • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 12:58 pm

        I didn’t recognize any of the entrants I judged this year, though so far only a small percentage have sent notes. I appreciate the thank yous. It was my first year judging, and I took hours over each entry, spent time in prayer, looked up a few issues in my best craft books, and allowed two days of work (with a night of sleep and a reread between) for each one. Judging takes far more time and effort than I expected, but I felt it was that important. It’s what I hope a judge would do for me. Knowing that, I would never now neglect to send a thank you to my judges, whenever that opportunity is provided.


      • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:58 pm

        I LOVE Pepper’s story! πŸ™‚


  7. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 9:08 am


    I haven’t entered any writing contest yet, and I am not a judge, but I agree with Ausjenny, a personal response is always more meaningful than a generic mass mail-out.

    I like to pretend people used to be more “genteel” and understand social graces better in the “old days.” I think there used to be more emphasis on doing the right thing, but our society has changed and become so “casualized,” many have not been taught what the right thing is. Posts like yours encourages us to examine our approach and how to do what is polite.

    Thanks for being specific in your tips. I’m really enjoying your blog!


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:28 am

      Heh. I was taught the right thing to do (Write thank-you notes for your Christmas presents! Write thank-you notes for your graduation gifts!), yet I still don’t do it most of the time. Graciousness just isn’t built into my DNA, I guess.


  8. Daphne Webb permalink
    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:36 am

    Well, I sent in my thank you note, but not the way you described. When I received my score sheets, the person in charge of emailing it to me had a section on sending a thank you. It only listed a generic designation, such as #ABCJ## and she would send it to each judge. So I wasn’t really given a specific person to send it to; I had to make it generic.

    :o) OH, well. I’ll do better next time.


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 10:39 am

      Thank you notes do go back through the category coordinator. You can either send separate e-mails, or in the body of the e-mail you can write three separate notes and indicate which note goes to which judge. The coordinators are used to doing this kind of thing.


  9. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 12:32 pm

    Thanks for the reminder about sending thank you notes! I received insightful comments from my judges and would love for them to know how much it meant to me. I’m glad I read this post first though. Now I’m thinking I should go back through the comments and so I can be specific. Great idea! I think it’s the perfect way to show the judges how much I appreciated their time and thoughtfulness in reviewing my entry. πŸ™‚


  10. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:20 pm

    I didn’t send any for the first contest I entered. For that I can only plead ignorance. I had no clue.

    For the Genesis judges who have only heard from a couple people, I know not everything is back yet. I don’t have mine back. So it’s not necessarily that you won’t get more…

    I think the genre thing may have been [part of] my issue. I’m sure there’s more to it than that but after further research I don’t think I was in the right category – at least not as I understand contemporary/mainstream [genre that breaks the rules of the genre]. That’s what I should have been…

    Ah well.

    Where was I? Right. Thank you notes. Will be sending them out once I get the nerve up to look at my score sheets. Which may be a week or more after I get them back ;). We’ll see.

    Kaye – I think I’d heard that story about the 30 somewhere else, but I don’t think your name was attached to it. Or maybe you mentioned it. On Seekerville? Not sure. But I thought then and I think now ‘wow. that’s wonderful! Hope my judges are as kind!’

    So… Funny story re Genesis.

    I had taken my Genesis entries and cut/tweaked them for Frasier. The way I did it with one was to rename the file then save it and make changes so the Genesis file stayed in tact. With the other one [which is the completed MS I’m ALMOST ready to query], I forgot to change the file name so I didn’t have the original Genesis file anymore.

    The other day, I’m making edits to my One Big Story File and knew that there were some edits in the Genesis file that had been transferred over. Well, it was gone, of course. I knew this and had consoled myself with ‘well, the original Genesis file is in my sent mail box’. So the other day I go looking for it and Can’t Find It Anywhere. Spent probably 15 minutes scouring like 4 different sent mail boxes and Could. Not. Find. It.

    Now. I knew I’d paid for it. Had I, by some insane fluke, paid for them but NOT emailed them? Had I paid for a contest I hadn’t even entered?! [which would certainly be one reason not to semi ;)]

    Finally, it hit me.

    There was a reason I didn’t have a ‘sent email’.

    It’s because it was a web based entry.


    It took another twenty minutes for my heart beat to return to normal.

    Off to wait for entries to be returned… πŸ˜‰


  11. Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:00 pm

    Ugh… I sent them in the past, but haven’t gotten a chance this year. Heck, I have a billion regular non-writing thank you notes I haven’t gotten out yet. *sigh*


    • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 8:02 pm

      Ummm, I think you get a special pass for the year, girl! Let the guilt go…. πŸ™‚


  12. Thursday, April 21, 2011 5:52 am

    Thanks, Kaye, for this post. One of the judges last year corresponded with me and even offered to help me further after I sent her a thank you – very generous. I just came off a big work deadline, but plan to send thank you’s to this year’s judges this week.



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