Monday, September 16, 2013

10 Writing Contest Tips and Strategies

Talk about timing.

As it turns out I'm judging two writing contests this month, and this past Saturday I gave a seminar at UMSL on tips and strategies writers can use to help them do better in writing contests.

Before I gave the seminar I solicited input from some of my writing friends (you know who you are) because they are so smart, plus I figured the students wouldn't want to hear only my opinions. 

While I shared 25 tips with the students during the seminar on Saturday, according to the KISS principle I've decided to pare the 25 tips down and combine them into ten.

1. Do your research. Understand the contest category you are entering. Know yourself and your target. Know who is sponsoring the contest. Know what rights you are giving away when you enter. Avoid scams. Invest wisely. Find out the name of the judge, if possible, and see what type of writing the judge prefers.

2. READ CAREFULLY AND FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES PRECISELY. Just about everyone I asked for comments mentioned this. That's why I put it in bold and all caps.This should be tip #1 because it is so important, but I wanted to list the tips in chronological order. Anyway, if you're uncertain about the guidelines, contact the Contest Chair.  As part of the guidelines: DO NOT EXCEED THE WORD LIMIT-- not even by one word (titles don't count). Know which category you are entering. (If the category is fiction, don't send an essay or a memoir. It's frustrating for the judge to pick a winner when more than half of the entries are well written, but they're nonfiction and the category is fiction.) Print out a copy of the guidelines and keep it handy.

3.  Just write it. Get your thoughts on paper and edit later. One prize-winning writer suggested, "write what you want and find a contest for it." If the word count is 1000, it's okay to write twice as much in your first draft. That gives you room to edit out weak or unnecessary words and keep in the best when you revise.

4. Use proper manuscript format. This gets back to #2. If the guidelines state double-spaced on plain white bond one side of the paper, be sure to do that.  Beyond that, proper manuscript format calls for the way your story or essay is laid out on paper. If you're unclear about proper manuscript format, check with the Contest Chair, or do some research. Here's a site one of my experts suggested:  Writers Digest online also has helpful information about formatting.

5. It's all about the writing. The above tips will get you started, but it's the writing is what will win the prize. Keep in mind the following: Titles matter, so always include one (unless it's a haiku). Unusual titles can catch a judge's attention and get them to take a closer look. The first line should be an attention grabber to get the judge to read more. Don't load up the beginning with backstory or too much description. Word choices are important. Nouns and verbs should be the workhorses of your manuscript. Eliminate passive or weak verbs (is, are, was, were, would, have). Ease up on adjectives and adverbs. Eliminate filler words (just, very, only, little, so, that). Watch out for clichés. Use vivid writing, including using the five senses (but not too much). Use concrete nouns (e.g. ox-eyed daisy is more concrete than flower.) Don't let description slow down the action. Take a unique approach. Judges get tired of reading the same type of story. Dare to be different, as long as you follow the guidelines. Use dialogue to make scenes come alive. Dialogue should sound natural. Dialogue is for conflict, not for meet and greet or agreement and not as an info dump. Orient your reader to time and setting. Character, voice, action, and conflict are important. A memorable character or a unique voice will stand out among other entries. In fiction: no conflict, no story. Watch out for tense shifts (from present to past and back again). Don't confuse your reader -- or the judge.

6. Pay attention to grammar and technique. Everyone makes mistakes, but take some time to correct spelling, punctuation and the like during editing and revision. Avoid using exclamation points. They're like screaming on paper, or as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke." One of my writing friends despises semicolons and suggests writers "never use semicolons in dialogue."

7. Endings are important. Endings should be satisfying, yet surprising. Know when to stop. Too often stories go on too long and become repetitive or preachy. Read some short stories by famous writers. See how they end their stories. Here's a famous ending from The Great Gatsby. "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." According to Pat Carr, "The last line of a story should be an action, a piece of dialogue, or an image."

8.  Edit, re-edit, revise, repeat. Print out a hard copy and proofread away from the PC. Read it out loud. Sure, your dog might think you're crazy, but you'll be amazed at the mistakes you'll pick up. Read it backwards (from the end to beginning--not sitting backwards in a chair) to catch double words and even more missteps. Don't rely on spell check. Set it aside for at least a week. Read it out loud again and edit and revise as needed. Truman Capote wrote, "Editing is as important as the writing. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil." So cut, cut, cut to make your work shine, shine, shine.

9. Re-read the guidelines. Catch anything you might have overlooked. Don't wait till the last minute to submit. Send in early to give the judge more time to consider your work. Be sure to include the contest fee and sufficient postage. Mail to the correct address. Keep track of your submissions. Before you submit, check the contest website in case there's a change to the guidelines--it happens. One of my experts mentioned that if a deadline is extended it might mean there aren't a lot of entries, which could increase your chances of winning. Submit and move to your next project.

10. Attitude matters.  You can't always win, so be a gracious loser. Accept the fact that judging is subjective. You didn't win this time, but there's always the next one. Accept a loss, be grateful for an honorable mention. Learn from your near misses. Be a gracious winner. Celebrate, but don't gloat. Celebrate when your writing buddies win too. Send a thank you to the contest sponsor, especially if you win. If you get an opportunity to judge, jump at the chance, even if you don't get paid. You'll learn a lot about writing by being a judge, plus it's a good feeling to give something back, especially to small organizations that don't have a budget to pay judges. Never quit! (Okay, I used an exclamation point, but I think it's appropriate here.)

But wait, there's more . . .

If you want to read about how winning a literary prize can change your life, Alan Rinzler's blog, "The Book Deal," has an insightful interview with several prize-winning writers.


  1. I've been judging a lot of flash fiction lately, and I agree with your list whole-heartedly. I would also add to read former winners if possible and try to come up with unique settings and story ideas. I've read SO MANY stories about death and dying and tornadoes.

  2. Good suggestion, Margo. As part of the seminar I had students read three flash fiction pieces to see if their picks matched the winners in a national online contest.

  3. These are wonderful and encouraging tips, Donna. Thanks so much! :)

  4. Great tips, Donna. I think I'll run it off and take it to my writer's meeting tomorrow.

  5. Hi Karen,
    You are welcome. Hope they help.

    Hi Janet,
    Aww. You are so sweet. The info on your blog today was helpful.

  6. Wow, great stuff and I am going to SAVE! Thanks.

    Also thanking for visiting my writing blog. I am afraid it's pretty simple. Brought home that NM tummy ache so I am struggling to keep going this week already!

  7. You mean I shouldn't whine and pout when I don't win? Darn...

    Anyway you definitely covered all the important tips. As with any complex recipe, read the directions carefully!

    Critter Alley

  8. Hi Claudia,
    You are welcome. Sorry you brought home a tummy ache from NM. It's such a beautiful and magical state, maybe that's why they call it the land of enchantment.

    Hi Pat,

    As long as you drink some wine while you wine. ;-)

  9. Sound advice, which I will use as soon as I set aside some time for submitting.

  10. Lots of great stuff here and definitely bookmark-worthy. It's nice to have so much info all in one spot! :)

  11. I enjoy entering contests and judging too. Your points are so important. It's interesting why the same piece wins one contest and doesn't place in another. Competition is always unpredictable. But following the rules gives an edge right upfront, so the judge can focus on your work instead of being distracted by mistakes - or actually having to disqualify you.
    It's always a thrill to win, and when I don't I love to read the winning piece and meet the author when possible. That's usually insightful too.

  12. Hi Val,
    Good for you!

    Hi Lisa,
    Thanks, and thanks for your advice. I used it in my seminar.

    Hi Marcia,
    You are right. Judging is subjective, and taking care of the basics is the first important step.

  13. Donna--I felt like I was a thief. You gave the workshop, and I wasn't able to attend, and yet I benefitted from your advice. And it was free.

    You should have blocked Marcia from this post. She doesn't need any help winning contests...

    Thanks for the tips. There were several that I needed to be reminded of, and a couple that I had never heard. And ALL of them are good...

  14. Hi Sioux,
    You are welcome. I hope they're helpful, although with all your publishing credits you could give a few writing tips of your own.


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