20 Tips For Winning Writing Contests

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Submitting stories to writing contests (Reedsy has an updated list with over 300 contests) can be quite lucrative if you know the tricks of the trade. At the same time it is easy to make an avoidable mistake and miss out.

Many books published now use single quotation marks for speech. I followed this format for an entry in an American contest. After the contest I received an email from the main judge which said: You may have done well in this contest but for the fact that I could not get past the abominable use of apostrophes instead of quotation marks.

Don’t let this happen to you. Worse, you will probably never know why you were not among the winners.

Tip 1. Always adhere to traditional standards of correctness (see above). A contest is not the time to throw the rule book away. This applies most strongly in writing contests which are run by universities or colleges.

Tip 2. If it says Literature contest, that’s what it means. They are looking for subtlety, depth, a subtext, creativity, and clever (even poetic) use of language; an emphasis on interesting often dark characters, and setting rather than plot.

Tip 3. If it says Writing competition, well written popular fiction is what will win. Now your emphasis must be on plot. You need a great opening line and an absorbing plot. Plot follows your main character’s conflict. Give this person an interesting difficult tussle of some kind. Your story ends when your character has resolved the conflict against all odds.

Tip 4. If it states a particular theme in the rules, then that theme must be intrinsic to your story.

Tip 5. Whatever kind of work you are writing, title is everything. The title is the judge’s first impression of your work. Spend time thinking of something relevant to the story that is eye catching and appealing.

Tip 6. Use your delete key. Read and reread your work. That paragraph you really like that you spent hours over. Does it advance your story? No? Then delete it. Does your story only get going on the second page? Delete page one.

Tip 7. Short stories work best from a single point of view. Don’t confuse the judge.

Tip 8. Does your entry use the right tense? Present tense may be fashionable but it doesn’t work for every story. If your story is immediate and all is happening now, use present tense. If it spans a time period coming up to the present use past tense.

Tip 9. Strive for active rather than passive voice.

Tip 10. Do not use real people for your characters. Real people in fiction are boring. Your main character should be larger than life yet still believable.

Tip 11. Do not use exclamation marks except possibly for a single word exclamation such as “Ouch!”

Tip 12. Beware of clichés. It is easy to use one without noticing.

Tip 13 Use strong verbs rather than adverbs. Likewise avoid strings of adjectives and NEVER write “suddenly.”

Tip 14 . Try to write something DIFFERENT. Think of the poor judge reading hundreds of stories set in her home country; then she gets to a well written entry set in Antarctica.

Tip 15. If you know who the judge will be, read his work; try to read the entries of previous winners. Do everything you can to fit your entry to the contest.

Tip 16. Use the entry form for all your details. NEVER put your name on the manuscript.

Tip 17. Font: Use 12 point Times New Roman or Arial unless the rules ask for something else.

Tip 18. Some contests give you a choice between paper or online entry. Choose paper whenever you can and pay the postage. Emailing submissions (unless as a Word attachment) can play havoc with your careful formatting.

Tip 19. Please do not decorate your manuscript or add that nice picture of your pet dog or the photo of yourself. All that work to end up shredded. Don’t add a cute little note for the judge (Yes some people do).

Tip 20. Proofread, proofread and do it again. If entering online print out to check your work. Read it out loud to yourself. If judges can’t decide between two entries and one is missing a comma or has a word spelled incorrectly and the other has been submitted perfectly set-out without typos; guess which one will win?

Good luck!

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8 thoughts on “20 Tips For Winning Writing Contests”

  1. …unless as a Word attachment…

    No. Sending any form of word processor files (.doc, .docx, .odt) is about the worst thing you can do if you want to preserve your formatting. A file can look completely different on different computers, even if the program used is completely identical (down to a build version). There is a format that’s explicitly intended for looking exactly the same everywhere, and that’s pdf (and it’s an open format, too).

  2. I’m passing this on:

    This is a nice genuine inexpensive Oz competition the 8 line poem contest is open until February and they take PayPal

    Diana Thurbon

  3. Birion,

    I think that’s overstating it. Different versions of Word will rarely produce documents that look “completely different”. Mostly they will look the same I’d say. What you should do, of course, is follow the instructions provided by the competition rules.

  4. “At the same time it is easy to make *an avoidable mistakes and miss out.”

    Proofread, proofread and do it again…

  5. Quoting Simon Kewin “Different versions of Word will rarely produce documents that look “completely different”. Mostly they will look the same I’d say.”

    An oft-overlooked setting which does cause havoc to any Word file is the default printer.
    For reasons totally beyond common sense, Word links the layout of the page to the printing settings of the default printer. Change your current printer to a new one and you can get quite some money by betting on the layout having changed.
    We have two suppliers of printers in our office and just moving up or down one floor does make the same document look different.

    Add this the rules for widows, orphans and if the font is available on the judge’s computer and yes, documents can look very different indeed.
    Pdf is a great format, the document will be displayed exactly the same be it on Windows PC, Linux or Mac.

  6. Great tips on winning writing contests. I used to entry poetry contests, and I entered a short story contest. Winning a contest can depend on what the judges like to read.

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