Five Quick Tips for Entering Contests

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

You’ve already chosen your contest and written your story, article, or poem. You have your entry ready to send. Before you hit “send” and cross your fingers, take a few moments to run over this quick contest checklist.

  1. Send your entry in the right format. Some judges want Word or text document (Notepad) attachments; some want your entry in the body of the e-mail. The contest rules will tell you how to send your entry. If not, there should be a contact address or message board where you can ask. Unless attachments are specifically requested, it’s best to assume they’re unwanted.
  2. Send your entry to the right e-mail address and title your e-mail properly. Very often there is a special e-mail address for your contest. Sending it elsewhere will not get special attention; it will get your entry lost (and it will peeve the judges). If you’re entering a contest via landmail, be sure to follow any special requirements, such as writing “re: Spring Contest” on the envelope.
  3. Put contact info where the editors request it. Very often contests are “blind-judged.” This means someone removes contact info and everything else (like cover letters) from your entry and forwards it to the judge(s). When there are several entries, the forwarding person needs to move quickly and if the rules say “put your contact info at the bottom of your entry,” that’s what you should do.
  4. Respect the word limit. Don’t go over, whatever you do, and don’t come in way under either. Aim for 80-100% of the word count (on a 5,000 word limit, that’d be between 4-5K). Pay attention to the pacing of your story. Judges can tell if you were just writing merrily along and realized “oops—I’m kissing the word count” and tacked on an ending. Once you hit that 80% of your limit, start to wrap it up.
  5. If there’s a theme, genre, or other requirement, use it. If the contest is for a western, don’t take liberties and write a “space western.” If it’s for non-fiction, don’t fudge your facts. If the contest uses a theme, like Toasted Cheese’s contests do, use the theme. Don’t get too clever with the theme; 90% of the entrants who use it will have the same idea. For example, at Toasted Cheese, we get a lot of “he doesn’t know he’s dead” entries for our annual “Dead of Winter” contest. We call it “The Sixth Sense Syndrome.”

If you follow these tips, you’ll be well ahead of at least 10-20% of the entrants. I’m always a little surprised when someone doesn’t follow one of these simple guidelines when entering our contests. Unfortunately no matter how good some of the entries are, we can’t consider them because they didn’t use the theme or were sent to the wrong address.

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