Welcome back, my inklings. I hope you’re all doing well. It’s Good Friday already and the contest deadlines we discussed last week are fast approaching. There’s quite a lot of strategies you can employ to get a better chance of winning a writing contest, many of which are only applicable to certain types of competitions.
I was considering this while I narrowed down for you the five best strategies that have helped me win in the past. I wanted to provide you with tips that should work for absolutely any writing competition you come across, strategies that without which you’re almost guaranteed to lose. I can’t promise you victory, but I can certainly put you on the path that leads to it.
1. First of all, you will need to Target the Right Audience: We’ve all gotten book recommendations from friends and acquaintances that were bafflingly awful. There’s no accounting for taste and if you’re entering a contest you’re going to go up against reader bias at a more critical level than you would normally encounter. The judges are going to read your work critically looking for reasons to disqualify it to make their top choice easier to single out, so you’d better figure out what they like before you even start to write your entry.
Now I know that a lot of writers are uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning their own vision in favor of writing to a specific crowd but consider your writing voice to be like a sparkling gem. Show your readers the side that shines brightest to them. Here’s how.
You’ll need to visit the contest webpage, find out who the judges are and do a little research on them. Often they will be writers themselves and you can find samples of their work. You’re going to want to analyze it for things like concrete vs abstract imagery, depth of characterization, types of plots and so on.
Do they favor flowing poetic descriptions or are they stark and blunt. Are they into high concept action or do they resonate with deep introspective emotional journeys? You can anticipate how the judges will react to your characters, descriptions and plot by better understanding how they interpret the craft of writing.
Reading past winners of the contest is helpful if the judges haven’t changed. The trouble is that it can be hard to know if there are new judges or new rules that make previous winners bad examples of how to win this time. If the judges are anonymous you will have a harder time but there are a few general methods you can use even then so you don’t go in blind.
For publishing houses and university contests, familiarize yourself with the styles they typically print. Heavily rely on Amazon’s look inside option to get reading samples for free whenever you can.
For contests at conventions with anonymous judges I recommend reading samples of the work by the current year’s guests of honor. The convention has already claimed an open association with these honored individuals and you want your story to fit the feel of the convention. You’ve got to write something they would be proud to represent themselves with to their attendees, which brings me to my next point.
2. Follow ALL instructions: This one I can’t stress enough and is a great strategy to employ when sending submissions to agents, magazines, or contests. If you skip this one you are almost guaranteed to lose. Judges have to be very critical to come down to only one winner in a contest. There can be differences of opinion among judges and they will have to weigh the differences of the entries on more than just artistic merit.
You may have even written one judge’s favorite story but when they have to make that final call and you broke even just one of the rules and your closest competitor followed them all it can be the deciding factor against you. It’s very hard to pick a “best” anything when it comes to art and anyone forced to evaluate tons of stories is going to use whatever rules they can to help them reduce the slush pile.
Familiarize yourself with the instructions and give them their ideal entry. Following every request and requirement like making sure your story is in the correct genre, staying within the word count, and using proper formatting make all the difference in the world.
It may sound obvious but so many people lose before they get a chance because they didn’t give the contest what it asked for. An entry that is exactly what the competition requested will be given a real chance to win because it can’t be disqualified.
3. “Done” is better than “Perfect”: After my first contest win I took some time at the convention and spoke to a few attendees. To my surprise quite a few of the wonderful people I spoke to talked about the writing contest. They had ideas for stories, it sounded like some had even started writing but I didn’t meet a single person who had actually entered. Many of them had “thought about it”, “wanted to” or “had a great idea” but it seemed so few followed through and really gave it a try.
I don’t want to sound harsh to anybody in that position but your stories deserve better, I really believe that. I know it takes a bit of a risk to your self esteem to enter a contest, trust me, but if you’ve got an idea that you’re excited about go ahead and give it a chance.
Getting the story written, even if you don’t win, is great experience and it makes you better at seeing projects through to completion. Don’t worry about making the best story ever, just focus on completing it on time. Don’t sweat the small stuff in every single line as you go, just get the whole plot on paper, beginning middle and end. When that deadline rolls around you may still wish you could polish it up but you’re going to have to make a choice. Is it good enough to enter as it is and am I going to take that plunge? I hope you do.
4. Start Early!: This strategy is good for any writing project with a deadline. The sooner you get your first draft finished ahead of schedule the more time you have to polish later. You may not even need to worry all that much about strategy number 3 if you plan ahead wisely and work with dedication on your entry.
This is such elbow grease advice there’s really not much I can elaborate on. Remember, hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard. Regardless as to where you think you are as a writer you can accomplish great things if you just give yourself the chance.
5. Review with a Friend (who is an experienced recreational reader): If you’ve followed all the other strategies then you will have time left over to go through your story several times with a beta reader. They will be able to tell where you have problem sentences that sound fine to you but are awkward to others. They can tell when an image breaks down and gets confusing. You’ve got the story playing out in your head so you know what you meant. An outside perspective is the only way to catch those flaws that an author can’t help but be blind to. Set your pride aside, let their critique be as painful as it needs to be to cut out all weakness and blurriness from your story.
Juna from my story Verser was originally a very aggravating character and I had no idea. I understood where she was coming from, I knew how she felt.
I didn’t know my readers would find her unappreciative and badgering until my wife told me. I was hurt. I was grumpy. She was right.
I rewrote almost all of Juna’s lines with my mind set on the things that Andrea said about rough-draft-Juna and came up with a character that we both liked a lot better.
If you’ve got someone who will be honest with you, who can be critical without being cruel, and who can say, “this isn’t clear to me, what’s happening here?” You’ll be head and shoulders above anyone who did all their proofreading alone.
In many contests there will only be a few entries that have gone through all these steps so your competition is actually smaller than it seems. If you try to present the most polished and professional entries to every contest that you enter you will sharpen the skills you need as a writer and give yourself the best chance to win.
Always remember that when it comes to contests “to win is an honor and to lose is not an insult.” Your story may have been some judges favorite and could have won in a different contest. Personal taste will always tip the balances in the end so you just have to persevere. However, with these five strategies in your arsenal your chances have improved exponentially.
Follow the rules and you place higher than everyone who broke them, enter at all and you place higher than everyone who never finished, start early and you can give your story the edge over any less polished last minute entries you come up against. Your goal is to eliminate every possible reason for the judges to eliminate your entry. That’s how you’re going to make it to the final round of consideration.
Happy Easter, everyone!
Until next time, stay creative!
Robert JV Christensen