How To Win a Writing Contest
by Joe Bunting | 33 comments
Do you want to learn how to win a writing contest?
If you enter a writing contest, there are a ton of benefits. It's a chance to practice your writing. It motivates you to write more and finish stories.
And, of course, most writing contests come with grand prize winners and prize money.
In this article, you can learn how to enter a writing contest and how to win one. Read on to learn more!
How NOT to Win a Writing Contest
Before you learn how to become a contest winner, it's worth knowing what will prevent you from winning a contest. Let's get the obvious out of the way.
Submitting a proofed entry that is free of writing errors and follows the contest guidelines is the minimum requirement you need to meet if you want to win a writing contest.
Here are some common mistakes that prevent writers from winning, entry after entry:
- Don't proofread . Do I really need to tell you to proofread? Personally, I'm lenient when it comes to some 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. A grammatical error every once in a while won't break your story, but enough that clutters the story will.
- 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 contest entries 1,500 words or less. Don't waste your entry fee.
- Submit a literary fiction 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 the contest theme 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.
Now, on to the bulk of this article: how to win a writing contest.
Note: These are just the base requirements. Following them will only ensure that your piece is considered, not chosen as the winner.
How to Write a Winning Short Story Idea
How do you write a story that could win a writing contest? How do you find a really great short story idea? In this coaching video, Joe gets coached by author Sarah Gribble, the #1 bestselling author of SURVIVING DEATH.
She helps Joe workshop his short story to turn it into what will hopefully be a winning short story. If you've ever wanted to win a writing contest, this is absolutely going to help you.
5 Tips to Win a Writing Contest
When it comes to winning story contests, follow these five tips:
1. 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.
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 a judge's experience—and luck.
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 for a creative writing competition.
This is why winning—although ideal (it comes with cash prizes or an honorable mention)—isn't the only reason you should enter a writing contest. There are other benefits like getting constructive feedback and giving yourself a time commitment that will motivate you to finish writing your story.
2. Your main character must be fascinating
What fascinates humans the most is contrast.
Light vs. Darkness. Good vs. evil. A good character trait for a 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 fascinates readers. Does your main character have contrast? If you want to win a writing contest, they 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 ).
Bad writing is creating a surprise ending that cannot be predicted and feels like the writer is simply trying to give the reader something they would never expect.
Instead, surprise the reader. 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 contest rules and submit. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.
All that's to say, don't over think this.
If You Want a Little More Help…
In case you're feeling stuck, we offer a 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:
- Upcoming Writing Contests from The Write Practice
- Ten Secrets To Write Better Stories
- How to Write a Short Story With Deep Structure (And Win a Prize for It)
- How do contest judges pick the winners?
- 20 Tips For Winning Writing Contests
Have you ever entered a writing contest? How did it go? Let us know in the comments section .
As you prepare for your next writing contest, 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 practice box below. And if you do post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.
Have fun and happy writing!
Enter your practice here:
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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris , a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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The Writing Cooperative
Mar 12, 2022
How To Judge A Writing Competition
Five top tips from a writing competition judge.
I remember the first time I was asked to judge a writing competition. At first, I was honored to be asked and said, “Yes,” without thinking. Five minutes later, I had done some thinking, and my thoughts were … “What have I done?” 😱
In hindsight, it was a great decision, because I’ve judged numerous competitions since then, and it’s great fun.
Six months ago, I offered advice to writers entering writing competitions about how to improve their chances of winning, based upon my experience as a judge. You can read the article here:
Five Top Tips From A Writing Competition Judge
That generated many comments, including one from Patty Apostolides, MFA , who said:
“I was just curious what criteria a judge uses in a writing competition. I will be involved as a judge in a poetry competition in the future. This will be my first one.”
So, Patty, (and anyone else who happens to be reading), here are my five top tips for judging a writing competition:
1. You’re a reader, first
The title of Judge sounds grand, but forget that for now. Essentially, you’re a reader . Many writers (especially those entering a competition) create something to entertain a reader. Therefore, think of yourself as a reader, first. Have you been entertained as a reader?
If you’ve never judged a competition before, don’t worry about it. Hopefully, you’ve read something before, and you had an opinion on it. That’s the key skill to bring to the role of being a judge. Be willing to read and, hopefully, be entertained.
2. You can only judge what you have in front of you
A competition is just that: a competition between the writers who have entered.
We judge what we have in front of us. There is no external ‘minimum quality standard threshold’ that entries must meet. Yes, there may be better quality material out there, but if it hasn’t been entered into the competition it can’t be considered.
For example, on 16th August 2009, Usain Bolt ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. He won the Olympic Gold medal. Twelve years later, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) Lamont Marcell Jacobs ran the 100-meter final in 9.8 seconds. He won gold, too, even though he was slower than Bolt. Why? Because Bolt wasn’t in the race. The final was judged on those athletes actually in the heat.
3. You are the judge
This is why I recommend writers do some research on who is judging a competition they’re considering entering. We’re all individuals. Different aspects of a writer’s work will or won’t appeal to you, and that will differ from judge to judge.
You WILL get two different sets of results from two different judges reading the same entries. That’s what makes us humans, not robots. Don’t be afraid to have your own opinion.
4. Don’t rush the process
I read the competition rules (particularly regarding word count, no identifying marks, etc), and check the entries adhere to them. Most competition organizers will do this, but it’s always worth double-checking.
Then I read through everything I’ve been given, and I endeavor to read the WHOLE piece. Some judges take the attitude that if the work hasn’t grabbed them by the first paragraph/page whatever then the writer has failed and it gets discarded from the process at that stage.
By the way, the first entry you read is the standard-setter. Everything you read afterwards will either be better than, or worse than that first entry.
Make basic notes. Post-It Notes are great for this. I just scribble my initial thoughts. Did you like it? Why? Did it not work for you? Why not? (These are the basics as to what the writer has succeeded/failed to do.)
Then I set the entries aside for a few days … to percolate. Time is a great judge. I find the great pieces are memorable. They’ve resonated with me in some way, and I often find myself thinking about them when I’m doing something else.
After this break, I sit down and re-read them for a second time, but this time I read them much more critically.
- Is it a great opening? Did it grab my attention and draw me in? Why and how did it do that?
- Is it the right POV?
- What’s the pacing like? Is it appropriate for the genre?
- What about character development?
- Is it the right ending? Is it believable? Does the resolution resolve the issue the story is about?
- Is the style/tone/approach and structure of the piece right?
This second read-through is my shortlisting process. Ideally, I’m looking for my top ten/twenty. (Depends upon the number of entries. Sometimes it can take another read-through to get to my shortlist.) Keep jotting down notes. The more Post-It Notes the better!
Then I put them aside again. For several days, if I can.
My third read-through is my placement process (hopefully), where I’m identifying what I think are my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and any highly commended.
After a few days’ break, I’ll read through the placements once more. Am I happy? I have changed my mind at this stage! But that’s okay. I’m the judge. I’m allowed to do that.
5. Write a report (even if you don’t have to)
Some competitions ask for a judge’s report: a few paragraphs about the general standard of entries, and what you liked about the winners.
Even if one isn’t needed, I always write one. It’s the perfect way to consolidate in my mind why I’ve chosen the entries I have.
If ever you get an opportunity to judge a competition, do it. It’s a fantastic opportunity to read a wide variety of material. And you know that you’re going to make one writer very happy, and maybe a few others quite happy too. Your decision could change a writer’s belief in themselves as a writer.
Judging writing competitions is a responsibility. But it’s also fantastic fun and an honor.
More from me on The Writing Cooperative:
How To Create An Audiobook Without The Exorbitant Cost
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When it comes to winning story contests, follow these five tips: 1. 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 ...
Essay Contest Judging Rubric For each criterion listed, score the essay on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the best score. Use a separate form for each essay. Do not score in decimals or fractions – whole numbers only. 5=Excellent 4=Above Average 3=Average 2=Below Average 1=Poor/Incomplete Criteria 5 4 3 21 Score
Judges Goals Ultimately, judges aim to assign a total value or points to each entry and select the winner based on total amount of points earned. Judging Shortcut A shortcut to judging large numbers of entries is to use social media networks to judge on your behalf up to a certain degree.