Whether you’re a seasoned short story writer, or trying your hand at short fiction for the first time, sooner or later you may consider entering a few competitions. You might be hoping for a foot on the ladder to fame and fortune, or you might just want to test your skill and possibly earn some feedback on your work. Winning or simply being short-listed in a competition can do wonders for your writing confidence, and may even lead to new writing opportunities. Whatever your motivation, you’ll want to maximise your chances. Over the past few years, having entered numerous competitions (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so!), I have the following five tips:
1) Find the right competition for you. Don’t just go for the most well-known or prestigious ones – they will have big prizes but a correspondingly high level of competition. Conversely, don’t just enter the freebies where there are likely to be more contestants simply because there’s no fee involved. Keep up to date with competition news – there are monthly magazines (e.g. Writers’ Forum, and Writing) which contain competition listings. Writers’ groups in your area may run competitions – check for promotions in your local library. Search for competitions online or get yourself onto Twitter, start following lots of writing-related accounts and you’ll be inundated with information about competitions and prizes. Once you’ve found a competition you’re interested in, find out as much as you can about it. If it’s an annual event, if possible read the winning entries from previous years. The idea is not to copy a specific style, but to build up a feel for the kind of work which has been successful in the past. Are these past winners character driven, do they have a particularly strong narrative voice, or are they action packed with an engaging plot? How does this fit with your own story-telling strengths? Find out about the judges too. Often there will be a single overall judge, though the initial short-listing may have been carried out by a panel of other readers. Read up on the judge’s own writing background and try to think if there’s an aspect of your writing style which most closely dovetails with the work the judge appears to enjoy.
2) Read the rules very carefully. Sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to miss something important. These days, writing competitions are extremely popular, and judges faced with the task of whittling down submissions will be quick to throw out any story not adhering to the rules. Don’t allow a story that would otherwise be a contender to be tossed aside simply because it doesn’t follow the brief. Start by checking the deadline, and the word count. There is usually a maximum number of words allowed, but some competitions will specify a minimum too. Check if the word count includes the title, and with flash fiction especially, check if you need to bring the story in on an exact total (e.g. 100 words). Adhering to a specific word count is an art form in itself, but you may find the restriction is beneficial, forcing you to re-write and remove weak verbs or muddy adjectives. If applicable, check if it is permissible for the work to have been previously published (and if so, if there are any restrictions connected with this – e.g. it may be that a story is eligible for submission if it has been published online on a personal blog, but not if it has appeared in print). Some competitions require you to include a specific opening or closing sentence, or to start from the basis of a specific scenario. If you choose to deviate from this instruction, the judges won’t admire your creativity – they will simply place your entry on the ‘reject’ pile. Finally, check the submission method: can you email your entry, is it hard-copy only, or do you have to enter online through “Submittable” or a similar site?
3) If you’re given a theme or scenario, spend some time considering possible interpretations. Chances are, if you’ve had an idea within the first few minutes of reading the competition requirements, everyone else will have thought of something similar. Judges will quickly get bored of the most obvious plots, styles or genres. Try to think laterally. One of my own first competition successes came about because the competition I’d entered had given quite a constricting scenario which suggested a fantasy style of interpretation. I’m not a strong fantasy writer, but I could see a way to interpret the scenario in a domestic setting, which is more my forte. I can only assume that by the time the judges came to my story, they had seen countless fantasy pieces – so by standing out in a crowd, my story was a success. If you’re stuck for ideas, discuss it with someone else – get another perspective. Spend some time on the internet (again, don’t be content with the first – or even second or third – idea you come across online – everyone else who is stuck will be doing exactly the same as you!). Look out for ideas from newspapers, magazines, the TV, or things you see or hear while you’re out and about. The subconscious is an amazing thing – it will be busy looking for links even without you necessarily being aware. You do need to give it a helping hand though. If inspiration doesn’t strike, just start writing something – anything. Eventually, another idea will spark and you’ll be able to make a link. From a tenuous link, you may then be able to pull out an amazing new plot.
4) Be professional in every aspect of your submission. Give yourself plenty of time to draft and re-draft. Once you believe you’ve finished your story, put it away for a while. Read it again with fresh eyes – you’ll probably spot a few errors you’d missed before. Read it to yourself out loud. The rhythm of the sentence structure is likely to sound different from the way it did in your head, and if you stumble over a sentence, this might indicate a re-write is necessary. Check the rules for presentation. Double lined spacing is usual, but some competitions stipulate a font size (and sometimes even font style). If you’re not sure on the correct way to typeset your story, take down a novel from your bookshelves and look at the way the professional publishers do it (especially things like speech, and paragraph indents). Don’t be afraid of white space – wide margins and plenty of space above the title looks better than having the text crammed in. Make sure you adhere to any regulations about page numbering and headers/footers carrying the title. Most competitions will not want you to put your name on any page other than the front sheet, as the work should be judged anonymously. Lastly, don’t leave it until the last minute to send it in – this will be the time there is a postal delay, or the internet crashes.
5) Don’t be put off if you enter a competition and hear nothing. You may enter many competitions without winning or even being short-listed. Don’t despair. Judging is subjective – for whatever reason, the judge simply felt more strongly about another story. It might have been a close call. You’ll probably never know. In the end, the judge’s decision is final, and the best thing you can do is read the winning entry (and any runners-up which are also published) and learn from them. Some competitions will provide a critique service for an additional fee. These can be quite useful in highlighting an area for future improvement. Whatever you do, don’t take it personally – it’s one writing professional commenting on the work of another. Even if you personally don’t agree with the criticism, you should keep in mind any advice or suggestions when submitting future entries. Keep a log of all submissions, and the date the results will be announced. This ensures that you don’t send the same story to two competitions at the same time (or to the same competition two years in a row as I once did!), and means you’ll be able to see as soon as a story is available to send to another competition. Over time, a log will allow you to analyse your success rate, and whether you have any particular strengths or weaknesses – thus allowing you to target appropriately in the future.
If you follow the guidance above, there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed, but you’ll be giving yourself a good chance. As with everything in writing though, the main thing is not to give up. You won’t win anything if you keep your manuscripts in a drawer. Keep writing, and keep submitting!
If you’d like to read some of the stories I’ve had success with in competitions, they are published in my collection Beyond Words available for Kindle on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Words-short-stories-deception-ebook/dp/B01JWLPKW0