There are many articles about winning writing competitions. Just do a web search to see them. This piece will take most of that advice as read, and concentrate on things that may be less obvious. These flow from my experience as creator and administrator of a writing contest and as reader for a literary magazine. I’ve also won a couple of competitions.
A brief summary of the obvious
- Read the rules. If there’s a prompt or theme, use it. If there’s a maximum word length, don’t exceed it. If judging is anonymous, don’t put your name on it. If there’s a required format, follow it. If no format is specified, use something standard and easy-to-read like Times New Roman 12 pt., double-spaced.
- Proofread. Nothing will annoy a judge more than spelling and grammar mistakes, poor punctuation, and uncorrected typos. They may well decide, if you can’t be bothered to proof the thing, they can’t be bothered to read it.
- Write well. Use active voice and strong verbs. Avoid clichés, strings of adjectives, and overlong sentences. Read it aloud to yourself so you can hear the rhythm of the prose. Leave yourself plenty of time to edit.
The less obvious stuff
- Devote time to researching the interests of the judges, if you can find out who they are. Look at previous winners to get a sense of what the judges like. Craft your story, if possible, to fit this brief.
- Select your competition. Again, research counts. Your chances of winning or placing in a competition vary widely from contest to contest. The most prestigious competitions like the Bridport have thousands of entries, while smaller competitions like the Yeovil have hundreds. Accordingly, your chances of placing in the Bridport are 0.22%, while in the Yeovil your chances rise to 4.9%. I’ve researched the stats for some major competitions and you can find them here.
- Understand the contest. Is it a “literary” competition or a “fiction” competition? “Literary” is likely to mean they’re looking for character-driven stories with depth, subtext, and beautiful language. “Fiction” or “Writing” is likely to mean that popular fiction will do well, and here, plot is central.
- Make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But somewhere between 40% and 50% of the stories submitted to my competition and to the magazine I read for are not full stories. Often, this is because they lack a proper ending. If you have a full story, you’ve already reached the top half of the pile.
- Write something unusual. By the time the judges have a short list of, perhaps, twenty entries all the stories will be good. But they won’t all be winners. And they’ll begin to merge into each other in the judges’ minds. Make sure your story has something unusual and memorable about it. Maybe this will be the character, or perhaps the setting. Don’t go with the first idea you think of—other people will generally have written something similar, particularly if there’s a prompt.
- Pay attention to cast and point of view. If you’re writing a short story, don’t overburden it with too many characters and shifts in point of view. These will just confuse the reader. Unless you’re feeling very brave, stick to one point of view character and keep the cast list down to two or three other characters.
The final secrets
- Submit early. Why? Most entries will come in as a rush at the end. In our case, about half the entries arrive in the last week. So, the judging will take place in a rush at the end too, If you submit early, you’ll be read more thoroughly and perhaps more sympathetically.
- But don’t rush it. After you’ve written and edited a draft you’re satisfied with, let it settle for a few days. When you read it over again, you may notice mistakes or opportunities for changes you didn’t see before.
- Writing tricks. Readers really like stories that loop back on themselves or where the ending echoes the beginning. Recurrent motifs may also help to make a story stand out.
- Think like a judge. Understand what’s happening in their minds. Judges are not looking for reasons to accept your story—they’re looking for reasons to reject it. Don’t give them a reason.
- Understand what judges are looking for. Many competitions don’t have standardized judging formats, but my competition developed one to make the assessment fairer. This is what our judges are looking for:
- Judging is still a subjective process. The winning story will usually be one that lingers in the judges’ minds hours or days after they’ve read it. You can enhance your chances that this one will be yours by choosing an unusual character, location or theme and by using the writing tricks noted here. As an example, I’ve been a reader for a magazine for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve read around 1,500 submissions. I selected 45 of them. I can still remember one. That one stands out for its superb atmosphere and characterization.