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?

(Don’t) Enter

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

Writing contests can inspire and motivate you, but stories don’t always turn out as planned. As you work on your story, you might find it breaking through the parameters. Let your story flow naturally.

  1. Enter: Set it aside and try something new if you want to continue to work on something for the contest. If you’re set on entering the contest, don’t get too attached to a single idea until you find something that really works with the parameters. You’ll know it when you find it.
  2. Don’t enter: If you’re inspired, keep working on this piece and try a contest another time. Just because you started a story for a contest doesn’t mean that’s where it has to end up. A finished story is a win regardless of whether it ends up being your contest entry—just make sure you submit it somewhere.

Five Quick Tips for Entering Contests

Absolute Blank

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.

Final Poll Results

Enter At Your Own Risk:
The Strange, Twilight World
of Writing Competitions

Absolute Blank

By Janet Mullany

Writing competitions are everywhere, offering fame, fortune, and great expectations. It’s fairly simple. All you have to do is meet a deadline, follow a few simple directions, and write something so outstandingly good that it beats the pants off dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other entries.

If it sounds like Publishers Clearing House, you’re not that far off the mark. The world of writing competitions is addictive, frustrating and exhilarating—just like writing itself. Entering a competition can be as simple as polishing your story, writing a check, and mailing both into a black hole. The only evidence that you entered at all will be your bank statement showing that the check cleared. Someone, of course, has to win. But it might not be you, and depending upon the size and prestige of the competition, the odds vary tremendously.

“Be aware that there are tremendous odds against you,” writer Loree Lough, a judge in the prestigious Writers Digest competition advises. “You have a much better chance of placing in a small competition.”

Her category, one of the smaller ones, the Inspirational Short Story, received a mere 2,000 entries, from which she had to select 100 entries to proceed to the next round. She reports that a surprisingly large number of entries were just not ready for submission to a major competition, and even though they may have had good points, she had to toss them onto the slush pile.

Ms. Lough added: “Make sure that you’re entering the right competition for the right reason. Accept that in most competitions, you will never know the reason why you didn’t place.”

So why enter writing competitions at all, with those sorts of odds? Many offer winners a publication credit, and a competition win is one of those useful things to mention in a cover letter when you submit to an editor. As with any other submission, you must make sure your work is polished to its highest sheen, formatted correctly, and like the US army, as good as it can be. Some competitions, particularly smaller ones, do offer feedback to contestants, and that can be both valuable and frustrating. What your critique group may have loved, may leave an anonymous stranger unmoved. As with any critique, you must take what you can, and disregard the rest.

One advantage to submitting your work to a competition is that there are specific time frames to which the sponsoring organization or publication is committed. Finalists or winners will be announced—generally only those who reach this stage receive personal notification—so you escape the agony of never knowing whether your baby is working its way up the food chain of a publishing house or languishing behind a file cabinet.

One genre in which competitions play an important role is romance. Many regional Romance Writers of America (RWA) chapters sponsor competitions as a fundraising activity. Generally an entry consists of a partial—the synopsis and the first few chapters of a novel with an entry fee in the range of $15 to $50. It is implied, or at least expected, that the work is finished, although some competitions, like the Golden Heart Competition sponsored by RWA National, require the inclusion of the full manuscript along with the partial. Most, but not all romance competitions, are open only to writers unpublished in full length romance fiction.

Volunteer judges handle preliminary rounds, and each contestant receives written feedback. Very few of these competitions offer anything substantial in the form of a cash prize-some offer a token such as a pin, a certificate, or even chocolate—but finalists’ entries are judged by an agent, or an editor from a major house. Potentially this could lead to a request for a full, an offer of representation, or a contract. More likely the reward will be euphoria, something to mention in cover letters, and then back to work. If you don’t make the final cut, you will at least get feedback and a scoresheet from people seeing your work for the first time—not always a pleasant or positive experience, but one from which you can learn something. At the very least, you can add to that extra layer on your skin that writers need to survive.

So what sort of competitions are good to enter? Just about any, so long as you win. The ideal competition does not charge any, or exorbitant, entry fees, offers feedback—and prizes are always nice, too—and a publication credit for at least the first prize winner, with copyright reverting to the writer at some point. A final piece of advice from Writers Digest judge Loree Lough: “Go into it hoping you’ll win, disregard mean feedback, and view it as a source of valuable free information.”


Janet Mullany is currently a finalist in the Missouri Romance Writers’ Gateway to the Rest Competition, and will shortly judge the first round of another RWA competition. So far her short story competition prizes include a mug, a t-shirt, and a book she gave away. She still uses the mug and the t-shirt.

Final Poll Results