How to Win Writing Competitions

How to Win Writing Competitions

Writing competitions are a great way to give yourself a deadline, focus your mind and produce your best writing.

This article will show you how to win writing contests.

There’s a number of things you can do to give yourself the best chance possible at winning a writing competition, which are also great advice for writing in general.

Competitions are great practice for budding authors and a lot of fun even for published writers. And while nothing can guarantee you a win in the subjective world of judging the written word, there are a few things we can do to help.

If you’re looking for a contest to enter then have a look at this Huge List of Writing Competitions.

So you’ve identified a contest that you’d like to target and are ready to write your story, or have a finished story that you feel fits well within one of the categories. Before you send it off to the panel of judges, have a read through my top tips for winning a writing contest:

1. Writing Contests: The Basics

Get the writing basics correct.

This means proofreading your work, making edits to polish it as much as possible. Get people to read it over and listen to their feedback. Remove the typos to appear more professional and ensure the reader stays immersed in your story, rather than being distracted by spelling mistakes.

If you don’t feel confident enough that you have removed all the errors, there’s a choice of spelling and grammar checking software that can do this for you, such as Grammarly.

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” — Jack Kerouac

If unsure about certain aspects, such as whether to use quotation marks or apostrophes for dialogue, always go with the traditional method. If your work is good enough to be published and the editor wishes to change it, then that’s fine.

But for writing competitions there are particular expectations about the basics being present. I find that reading my work aloud shows me errors that would otherwise have remained hidden.

2. Competition Word Counts

If you go over (or under) the word count for the competition then there is a good chance your story will not even be read, meaning all your hard work will have gone to waste.

The judges won’t get to see the quality of your work. Need to trim your story down? Try cutting out backstory. Does the reader really need to now every tiny detail? Or are there parts that aren’t progressing the story that can be chopped.

If you feel changing the word count would be detrimental to your story, then find another writing contest that is a better match for your story. You can find more ways to trim adverbs, cliches and other ideas in my Top 10 Writing Tips.

3. Writing Contest Themes

Writing competitions often have a theme. This can be an image, a quote or genre within which your writing must fall or relate to. If you aren’t sure whether your story fits the theme, then have a look at previous winner’s stories. If it asks for a horror story, ensure you have written a horror story, and so on.

Know the difference between a literature contest and a writing competition.

A literature contest usually wants a style of writing that embodies creativity, depth and clever use of language. A writing competition usually wants more popular fiction, plot-driven rather than setting-focused, and a conflict your main character needs to resolve.

4. Writing Contest Guidelines

Always read and adhere to the competition rules.

  • If the writing contest states that all submissions must be online, then only submit online.
  • Check that there aren’t any restrictions on who can enter, as you don’t want to get your story disqualified.
  • Never put your name  or other identifying information on the manuscript. Writing competitions are judged anonymously, based on merit.
  • Unless specified otherwise, use 12 point Arial or Times New Roman font.
  • Don’t add a note for the judges, or any personal pictures, or anything else that isn’t asked for. All they need is your story.
Patience produces quality. Write. Rewrite. Never give up.

5. Create Memorable Characters

Having got the basics in place, it now comes down to the quality of your writing which decides how well your story places within the contest. Create interesting, memorable characters that reader’s form emotional connections with.

Then heighten this by placing them within a fascinating world, but one filled with jeopardy and intrigue. If you need support bringing a character to life, then have a look at How to Describe People.

6. Write a Complete Story

Try to create a story arc or events that can be told within the contest word count. If it’s a short story competition, try to focus on one small event that perhaps doesn’t go as expected.

Don’t submit a partial story or snippet of a larger story, as it won’t contain all the elements that the judges are looking for. This includes limiting the number of characters, locations, events, time periods to a manageable amount.

7. Get the Judge’s Attention

One of the best ways to immediately grab the judge’s attention is to hit them with an amazing opening line. This will be the first impression they have of your overall story, so make it a powerful one that makes them want to continue reading.

The judging panel will have read loads of stories in a very short amount of time, so will be looking for something that truly stands out. In addition, come up with an intriguing title that relates to the story and overall theme.

8. Keep the Judge’s Attention

Okay, so you’ve hit them with your best opening line, and now you have to follow it up with some action. Don’t bother with back story or world building in the beginning, drop your characters straight into trouble. Or indicate what will shake up their routine. What is your character’s goal?

9. Write Dilemmas, Create Crisis

A great way to keep a judge’s attention is to base your story on a dilemma that your character is facing. Something that forces them to make a choice, in order to achieve a goal.

Questions for writing inspiration:

  • What incident causes your character’s world to turn upside down?
  • What surprises your character?
  • How do your characters react to the incident?
  • What choices must your character make?

“There is only one plot – things are not what they seem.” – Jim Thompson

Build tension as they work their way towards that goal, increase the risks and danger, making the outcome extremely important. Then introduce the consequence of their decisions and actions. Or unexpected consequences.

10. Move Your Story Forwards

Your character should always find themselves in new situations, facing new obstacles. Or variations of old obstacles which drive the story. Decisions have to be made, the consequences dealt with, then new decisions made and new trials overcome.

  • What subplots can move the main plot forward?
  • How can your conflicts become more perilous?

Things should always be changing in your character’s world, generally growing more intense until it reaches an equally powerful ending. Your character’s personality should grow and change with the action too.

11. Write a Satisfactory Ending

After all that hard work poured into the opening and middle action, you need to give your story the ending it deserves. One that wraps up all the loose ends, leaving the reader (and judges) feeling satisfied that the story has been resolved, but also leaves them with a final thought.

This could be adding a bit of mystery or a revelation that changes how the rest of the story is viewed, a memorable twist. Something that makes your story stick in their minds.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.” – Octavia E. Butler

Bonus Tip

Relax and simply write.

Remember that nothing can guarantee that you’ll win a writing contest.

But getting these fundamental elements right can help your story to overcome the initial hurdles. Most of all you should enjoy the writing experience that leads to your final story, write to the competition rules, hit the submit button, then relax.

It’s now out of your hands.

Who will judge my story?

Your story will likely go to a team of readers who will select their favourites to go through to the next phase of judging.

The number of judging rounds will likely depend on the number of entries and size of contest you have chosen to enter. Eventually there will be a longlist formed, which will then be whittled down to a shortlist. This is normally where the prizes and commendations begin.

Read How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide to find more guidance and support on becoming the best writer you can be.

Learn insights into how to use the secret art of euphonics to unleash the power of psychology in your work. This book is designed to guide you step-by-step through your complete story journey and achieve success with your writing!

Good luck!

Aaron Mullins

aaron-mullins-author-writer-books-crime-mystery-smallAaron Mullins is an award winning, internationally published psychologist. He started Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, gaining media recognition and partnering with World Reader Charity before moving on to new ventures. He also taught academic writing at Coventry University. As a fiction author he’s known for exploring the darker side of psychology in his work. He also creates business guides for entrepreneurs and writing guides for fellow authors.


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