Writing competitions are a great way to give yourself a deadline, focus your mind and produce your best writing.
How to win writing contests: this guide is for authors who are ready to submit their short stories, poetry and books into writing competitions. Short story competitions are usually for writers to submit their stories of around 1,000 to 3,000 words length. Poetry contests usually request poems for submission to be around 40 to 60 lines. There are also many young writers competitions, with age restrictions on accepting submissions, as well as flash fiction writing competitions, who usually accept stories up to 500 words.
This author guide will give tips and advice on how to win creative writing competitions.
There are a number of things authors can do to give themselves the best possible chance of winning a writing competition, many of which are also great advice for creative writing in general.
Writing competitions are great practice for budding authors, particularly for young authors entering children’s writing competitions, 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 all writers.
If you’re looking for a writing contest to enter then bookmark 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:
Step one of how to win writing competitions is to get the very basics of writing correct.
This means proofreading your writing and making any necessary edits to polish your story or poetry it as much as possible. Get other people to read over your stories and poems and listen to their feedback. Correct any typos to appear more professional and ensure the reader (and judge) stays immersed in your story, rather than being distracted by spelling mistakes and other basic errors.
If you don’t feel confident enough that you have removed all the basic writing errors, there’s a choice of spelling and grammar checking software that can do this for you, such as Grammarly. Though if you are writing in Microsoft Word, just look for the red underlined words and change them if you need to.
If you are unsure about certain aspects of your writing, such as whether to use quotation marks or apostrophes for dialogue, always go with the traditional method in your chosen genre. If your work is good enough to be published and the editor wishes to change it, then that’s fine. If you get it to this standard, then you have a good chance of winning a writing competition.
For writing competitions, there are particular expectations about the basics being done. Most writing contests will disqualify your short story or poem if it is littered with basic errors. I find that reading my work aloud shows me errors that would otherwise have remained hidden.
If you go over (or under) the word count for the writing competition then there is a good chance your story or poem will not even be read, meaning all your hard work will have gone to waste.
The writing contest 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.
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. Make the contest theme central to your story and you will have a better chance to win a writing contest.
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.
Always read and adhere to the writing competition rules.
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.
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. If it’s poetry, find a way to convey the story or emotion within fewer lines than you may otherwise normally compose.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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. You will now be well positioned to win a writing competition!
Your characters 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.
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.
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. This final aspect could be how you win a writing competition.
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.
Your story will likely go to a team of writing contest 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.
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Aaron Mullins (@DrAaronMullins) is an award winning, internationally published psychologist and Amazon bestselling author. Aaron has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. He started Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, partnered with World Reader Charity and taught Academic Writing at Coventry University. Aaron’s book How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors has become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in a publishing career. Find out more.