Why do people enter writing contests? Some enter to get practice. Others enter to motivate themselves to finish their stories. But there’s one thing nearly everyone who enters a writing contest wants…
Want to win a writing contest? We’re launching our new Winter Writing Contest next week with over $3,000 in prizes. As you prepare, get a free copy of our 1-page guide, 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas, here »
As the editor of The Write Practice, I’ve helped judge about a dozen writing contests, and during that time, I’ve learned what makes a winning submission and what will ruin your chances.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how to win—or lose—a writing contest.
How NOT to Win a Writing Contest
Let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Submitting a proofed, grammatically correct entry in the requested genre that follows the contest’s theme and meets the required word count is just the minimum requirement if you want to win a writing contest.
If you want to lose a writing contest, though, do any or all of the following:
- Don’t proofread. Do I really need to tell you to proofread? Personally, I’m fairly lenient when it comes to typos. If the piece is excellent but has two or three mistakes, I recognize that there is time to fix them before we publish the story. However, not all judges are so understanding, and it goes without saying that you need to closely proofread your writing before submitting to a writing contest.
- Knowingly or unknowingly break grammar rules. If you want to win, observe proper grammar. Again, I don’t really need to tell you this, do I?
- Write 1,000 words more than the word count limit. You will not win a writing contest if you submit a 2,500 word story to a writing contest asking for pieces 1,500 words or less. Just don’t do it.
- Submit a literary masterpiece to a supernatural romance contest. Yes, that’s a recipe for failure. Writing contests generally lean toward certain genres. If the genre is not explicitly stated, read previously published stories from the contest to get a sense of what the judges will be looking for.
- If there is a theme, ignore it. Writing contests often ask for pieces that fit a certain theme or even follow a prompt. A good way to lose a writing contest is to ignore these requirements and write whatever you feel like.
These are obvious, right? I would like to believe that they are, but I’ve judged enough writing contests to know that many people don’t seem to understand these tips.
Of course, if you’re reading this post, I’m sure you’re smart enough to know these already, so let’s get to the important tips, shall we?
Remember, these are just the base requirements. Following them will only ensure that your piece is considered, not chosen as the winner. Actually winning a writing contest is much more difficult.
5 Tips to Win a Writing Contest
How do you win a writing contest? Here are five tips:
1. First, recognize you are human
This may be a strange way to begin a list of tips on how to win a writing contest, but let me explain.
Stephen King once said, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” But instead of the word “edit,” you could substitute the phrase “judge writing contests,” because editors and writing contest judges play a similarly godlike role.
Why is one excellent story chosen over another excellent story? Who knows?! Even the judge may not know, at least not objectively (although they will always have great reasons).
To scrutinize the actions of the judges of a writing contest is impossible.
All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or what the judge ate for lunch that day.
What is the writer to do, then? Submit your piece, pray it wins, and then go write your next story (and find a new contest to submit to). Nothing else can be done.
I know that’s not a very good tip. If you need more advice than this, continue reading.
2. Your main character must be fascinating
What fascinates humans the most is contrast.
Light vs. Darkness. Good vs. evil. A good hero battling the evil in the world. A normal person battling the evil inside themselves. An evil person drawn, despite themselves, to a moment of goodness.
Life vs. death. A woman’s struggle against cancer, against a villain that wants to kill her, against the deathly banality of modern life.
Male vs. female.
Neat vs. messy.
Contrast is fascinating. Does your main character have contrast? If you want to win a writing contest, he or she should.
3. Surprise endings
I love surprise endings. All judges do. However, I hate out of the blue endings.
A good surprise ending can be predicted from the very beginning, but the author skillfully distracts you so that you never expect it (the traditional method of distracting the reader is to use red herrings).
A bad surprise ending cannot be predicted and feels like the writer is simply trying to give the reader something they would never expect. This is lazy.
Please surprise me. Please don’t make up the most shocking ending without providing the clues to this ending earlier in the story.
4. Repeat with a twist
In the last few lines of your story, repeat something from earlier in the story with a twist. This echoed ending will reverberate with your reader giving closure and emotional power.
For example, you might repeat the opening image. If the snow is falling in the first lines of the story, you might say, “As night closed, the snow continued to fall. He thought it would fall for all his life.”
You might repeat an action. If your character is eating at a diner with his wife in the first scene, perhaps in the last scene he is eating alone at the same diner all alone.
You might repeat a character. If your heroine has a meet-cute with an attractive man early in the story, you can end the story with him unexpectedly showing up at her workplace.
Repeating with a twist gives your ending an artful sense of unity. It’s also really fun!
5. Write what you know (even if what you know never happened)
In one writing contest, I read a story written by a Brazilian writer about American kids driving around, eating hamburgers, and going to prep school.
“Write what you know,” I wrote to her over email. “I’m sure there are fascinating stories where you live. But don’t regurgitate stories you see on American television. You will never know that world as deeply as you know your own.”
On the other hand, Ursula Le Guin said this about the advice to write what you know:
I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.
How to (Really) Win a Writing Contest
There is, of course, no guaranteed way to win a writing contest. All you can do is write your best piece, follow the rules of the contest, and submit. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.
All that’s to say, don’t over think this.
WRITE. SUBMIT. REPEAT. Truly, that is the only way to win a writing contest.
If You Want a Little More Help…
We just released a new, free guide to help you come up with better short story ideas, and thus have a better shot at winning writing contests.
You’re welcome to download the guide, for free, here:
Click here to get 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas free »
I hope you enjoy the guide, and most of all, I hope you write some really great stories.
Want more tips? Here are a few good resources:
Have you ever entered a writing contest? How did it go? Let us know in the comments section.
Want to win a writing contest? We’re launching our new Winter Writing Contest next week with over $3,000 in prizes. As you prepare, get a free copy of our 1-page guide, 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas here »
Spend fifteen minutes creating two characters with high contrast (see Tip #2). Write one paragraph describing the first character and another paragraph describing the second.
Then, post your two paragraphs in the comments section. And if you do post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
Have fun and happy writing!
Standing out is hard. Sometimes you just want to blend in and stick with whatever everybody else is doing. Creative writing competitions are not those times.
I’ve judged a lot of competitions for young writers, which means I’ve read through thousands of stories, each one trying to stand out. But so many of them fall into the same traps. So often I spot a promising story and wish I could give the writer just a couple of simple pointers that would take their writing above the competition.
Read the Short Story Week young writer competition 2015-winning The Promise
Here are the tips I find myself screaming into my hands as I read those entries. Each one is an understandable mistake, and most of them don’t come up in English lessons at school.
Standing out will still be hard, because it takes a little extra time and extra thought to create something original. But if you follow these tips, you’ll give yourself the best chance of finding a spark of something special. Good luck.
(Oh, and the most important one is number 6…)
1. Don’t start with the weather
It’s an easy way to start, isn’t it? A lovely warm-up for the mind and typing fingers to ease yourself into the story, like spewing out “once upon a time” yet again.
It was a bright, sunny day… It was a dark and stormy night… It was rather chilly with a brisk easterly and a 50% chance of precipitation…
Nobody cares. I don’t even pay attention to weather reports in my real life, let alone take an interest in what’s happening in the sky above fictional characters I haven’t met yet. Start with one of two things, and preferably both: People and conflict. Those two things are the essence of any story. People and conflict. That’s all the reader (your judge) cares about. People and conflict will drive your story forward, will be the essence of everything you write. So start with people and conflict.
Sophie McKenzie’s top tips for writing tight plots and building suspense
(The only possible reason to start with the weather is if your story is ABOUT the weather – perhaps it’s a disaster story about a big storm, or a survival story where extreme conditions threaten an expedition. But even if you think your story is about the weather, it’s really about the people, isn’t it? People in conflict with their environment. So don’t start with the weather.)
2. Cut your first paragraph
It’s amazing how many stories are instantly improved by simply covering up the first paragraph. Try it. Your first paragraph is probably about the weather, anyway.
Or your brain found some other way of warming up. Or you were so excited you just had to tell me some crucial information in the first few lines. Well, that information is not as crucial as you thought it was. It can wait. The right moment will come up later in your story for you to SHOW me that information about your world. Or, even better, I’ll have worked it out for myself from the way you’ve written everything else.
Readers are two things: bright but impatient. It’s OK to plunge us straight into your story without explaining – straight into the conflict (see point one). So once you think you’ve finished your story, go back and see what happens if you cover up your first paragraph. Or cover up your first two paragraphs. Or three. Or scan your first page looking for the most arresting opening line. It’s there somewhere. You might not have realised it was the perfect opening line when you wrote it, but you can find it now and cut everything that comes before it.
3. Don’t write a “spooky story”
Spooky stories are wonderful. But for a writing competition they give you a lot of problems. First, everybody thinks they can write them. But you should want to stand out. Second, it’s very hard to come up with anything spooky that hasn’t already been done a million times. So how can you make your story unpredictable?
Top tips for writing ghost stories: Cornelia Funke
But the biggest problem is going to be your ending. Spooky things are usually spooky because they can’t be explained – the supernatural curse, the face at the window, the ghosts and ghouls from beyond our world… So once you reveal what’s behind the spooky stuff it feels like an anticlimax. And if you don’t reveal what’s behind your spooky stuff, what do you end with? You end with dot, dot, dot of course.
Almost two in three stories by young writers that I read for competitions are spooky stories that ‘end’ with a thrilling moment of danger and then… that’s it. No resolution, no explanation, no fun of seeing how the character fights back (or fails to) just the dreaded dot, dot, dot… I can usually guess from the first line whether a story is going to “end” with a dot, dot, dot.
Dot, dot dot is not an ending. It’s a beginning. If you really love the spooky situation you’ve come up with, start your story where you’ve written your dot, dot, dot. Develop it from there, then give me a wonderful, satisfying ending that I wasn’t expecting but which makes sense of everything that’s come before.
Setting up a spooky mystery is easy. I, your judge, will give you no credit for it. Setting up a spooky mystery unlike anything I’ve read before is a bit harder. I’ll still give you very little credit for it. I’m mean. Unravelling a mystery in a satisfying, surprising way… that’s hard. You’re going to need a brilliant twist. Try it if you dare…
4. Avoid celebrities or characters that already exist
Recently I was running a writing workshop for a group of students who had all written stories in preparation for the day with me. The first thing I did was to ask them to put up a hand if they’d written a story about a footballer. About a quarter of the room put their hands up. Then I asked them to keep their hands up if their stories were about either Ronaldo or Messi. All the hands stayed up.
This is pretty typical. And it’s understandable too: it’s easy to plug in a celebrity or existing character to your story. Of course it is. You don’t have to do any of the work of creating a character from scratch. You know a bit about the person so you can imagine them in a story. The same applies to characters from fairy tales or from popular stories that already exist.
I was recently judging a creative writing competition for a big network of hundreds of international schools. Thousands of students from all over the world write stories for this competition every year, and every year the organisation compiles a list of the characters or character names that crop up over and over. Most popular this year: Cinderella. Closely followed by, guess who, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. There were superheroes on the list too, including Superman, Batman, The Hulk and One Direction (yes, of course they count as superheroes). James Bond was there, alongside, for some reason, the Tooth Fairy.
So think twice before grabbing an existing character or personality for your story. Fan fiction is great, and a wonderful way to start out as a writer. It can help you hone your skills and be a launchpad for your own imaginative journeys. But it’s not going to win a creative writing competition.
If you want to write about Harry Potter, or a footballer or superhero or celebrity, it doesn’t take that much extra time and imagination to use someone you’ve heard of as a starting point but then tweak it. Make it your own. Change the name. Change the situation. What are you really trying to say about that character? Try exaggerating an aspect of the personality to make your point bolder. Or, for a quick fix, mash two things together: a footballer superhero. A boy band that goes round after dark collecting people’s teeth. Suddenly, you’re in fresh territory and you won’t see your characters crop up on a list of what everybody else is writing.
5. Calm down. Keep it simple. Your words are giving me a headache.
When writing competitions are split into age categories, I see a really odd trend in the stories. Writers in the older age groups try to show me how well they can use fancy words. The younger writers are better at telling a story. Which do you think is more important? If you’re in the older age-group category, you might find that a tricky question. It isn’t. The story is ALWAYS more important.
Writing a good story is not the same thing as writing to get ticks from an English teacher. All those fancy words, the complicated constructions, the flowery images… cut them. Pretend you’re still a young kid who just wants to hear a story. Focus on that.
Want an easy way to work out whether you’re overwriting? Count your adjectives. Try to limit yourself to a couple per page. More than one per sentence is definitely not a good idea. Count your adverbs too. Then cut all of them.
There’s always a better way of SHOWING me your story than just TELLING me what to imagine by using an adjective or adverb. And the more syllables there are in your adjectives, the more they’re getting in the way of your story.
So calm down with your thesaurus. Nobody’s trying to break the English language into a new dimension. We just want to hear a story.
6. Write an ending
Remember why I warned you not to write a spooky story? Remember the dreaded dot, dot, dot…? Well, it turns out endings are difficult no matter what kind of story you’re writing. But remember this: if your story doesn’t have an ending, you haven’t written a story. At best, you’ve written a set-up. If you’re entering a story-writing competition, you’re going to need to write a story, and that means you need an ending.
Have you any idea how frustrating it is to read entry after entry, all of them setting up story situations, some of them excellent, but hardly any of them leading anywhere or giving me the satisfaction of a pay-off? Please, I’m begging you: give me that sense of completion that every story should promise – and deliver. Write an ending.
Making your writing the best it can be: top tips from children's books editors
If you’re finding it tough to work out an ending to your story: that’s the way it should feel. Endings are hard. But they’re worth it.
Here are a couple of hints to help you. The great film director Alexander Mackendrick said, “If you’ve got a beginning, but you don’t yet have an end, then you’re wrong. You don’t have the right beginning.” He also said, “There are no wrong endings, only wrong beginnings.”
I suggest you come up with your ending first. Plan that out, then plan how you’re going to get there.
How about writing just an ending? Remember up in point two, when I said you could cut your first few paragraphs? What if you cut the whole of the start of the story and just threw me, your reader, straight into a brilliant ending?
The writer Kurt Vonegut suggested something like that. One of his 8 tips on how to write a good short story is simply: “Start as close to the end as possible”
7. Get out of school
A quick one. A simple one. Most people hear about writing competitions in school. So they look around and they start writing a story set in a school. Break the mould. Think beyond the walls of the space you’re in.
8. Write from an adult’s point of view
Remember I suggested you think beyond the walls around you and write something that isn’t set in a school? How about getting beyond the body you’re in too? Try writing something with an adult as the main character, or from an adult’s point of view. Why not? It might seem difficult at first, but if I can write books starring a genetically-engineered assassin who’s only 12, you can make the leap into an adult’s existence.
Try it. Trust me: nobody else in the competition is doing it.
Pete Kalu’s top tips for writing non-cliched multicultural characters
9. Challenge every word
The best stories are the most re-written stories. It’s that simple. And the more you re-write, the more you’ll stand out from every other entry in a creative writing competition. Find the best bits of your story and hone them to make them better. Change what’s around them to show them off. Find the weaker parts – cut them. Cut and rewrite furiously. Are there sections where you’re rushing? Slapping down too much information at once? Are you explaining when you could be showing?
I could write a whole new piece on how to rewrite. I love rewriting. I don’t write a message in a birthday card without a rough draft I can tear apart and reconstruct into something better.
But it all boils down to this:
Make every line count – for the story, not for its own beauty.
Challenge every word.
Every. Single. Word.