5 Tips for Perfecting Your Writing Contest Entry

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

How can I do better in contests?

  • Keep story pacing in mind
  • Use familiar characters or settings to save time
  • Go with the idea you feel passionate about

Toasted Cheese sponsors four contests each year, with deadlines at the change of the seasons. There are similarities and differences among the contests. Writers have entered the same contest for years, sometimes placing and sometimes not. Some writers enjoy the challenge of working within parameters or against a deadline. Some are trying to publish for the first time and some publish frequently.

For a lot of authors who try contests, it’s enough to finish and submit the entry. For others, winning (or placing) is everything. Placing in a contest can mean a publication credit, a prize, or a networking opportunity. So if you’re past the “it’s enough that I sent it” but you’re not placing in the contests you enter, here are a few tips based on entries we’ve judged over the years.

Background Image: 2day929/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: 2day929/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

1. Follow the guidelines

Is the contest for a specific genre? Is there a theme? Is there a word count range or a maximum word count? Does the contest happen with regularity (every month, once a year, etc.)? Are the guidelines you’re reading for an old incarnation of the contest? When is the deadline? Is there a time of day (and time zone given) that entries must be sent by?

As you work on your story, you might find it breaking through the parameters (for example, it doesn’t want to resolve within the word count). Let your story flow naturally. No matter your time limits, there’s time to edit (even in a one-hour contest). Budget your time according to the way you work. If you like a lot of prep time and planning with a little writing but a lot of editing, you don’t need to divide your available time into thirds.

If your story gets far from the contest guidelines, set it aside and try something new if you want to continue to work on something for the contest. Use the story that expanded beyond the parameters for your next project. If you’re inspired, keep working on this piece and try a contest another time.

2. Stretch, don’t break; push, don’t puncture

Judges are looking for entries that take risks, not liberties, with the guidelines. Stretch them and think in different ways but don’t stretch the guidelines so far that the judges will have difficulty seeing how you used the themes. If you feel bold, push your own limits as well as the limits of the contest. Write whatever you’re inspired to write. If it goes outside the boundaries of the contest, you can either edit it to fit or use it for a regular submission.

Keep in mind that the clever twist on the theme that you thought of in the shower is exactly the same twist that someone else has been working on since the contest was announced. It’s not enough to throw in the tweak. You have to write the best possible version of it. Don’t rest on the fact that you came up with the great idea. Someone else did too and you have to have the better entry.

3. Write fresh

Never, never blow the dust off an old story and submit it, even if it meets all the parameters. Judges always know and they don’t appreciate it. Usually entries like these are the first to come in and they reek of stale writing. If you already have a piece you think is perfect (and it’s never been published; we check that too), rewrite it. Change some character names. Change the setting. Start the story two paragraphs later. Flesh it out or trim it. Add new technology, if relevant. Add a new obstacle. Change the ending. There’s always something you can do to make your story fresh and new.

4. Edit the entire work

We see a fair number of contest entries that fall apart in the middle or the end but we very rarely see it in regular submissions. We have two theories about why this happens. One is “kissing the word count.” Writers see that the word count limit is approaching and they feel pressured to wrap it up. The other theory is that writers edit their entries more fervently at the beginning and less so in the middle and at the end. It could be that the writer is tired. It could be that that’s where the story really takes off and it’s pleasing the writer so much that she gets caught up as a reader (which isn’t a bad thing) and forgets to edit.

Our advice is to make sure you edit the entire work. Do you have as many notes at the beginning as you do at the end? Why? Is it because you stopped editing your story? Did the story really take off about 1000 words in and you didn’t have much to change? In that case, do you need to chop about half of the opening?

5. Stay true to your voice

When writing for a specific purpose or audience, it can be easy for a writer to lose his voice. He might emulate previous winners, use different language than usual, or try too hard to impress. It may be accidental or it may not. There’s no simple trick to retaining your voice. Just be aware of it. When you reread your finished story, does it sound like your other work? Could your ideal reader pick it out of a lineup?

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