by Laura Michelle Thomas
I know it’s hard to win a creative writing contest, especially a popular or prestigious contest. But, regardless of your skill level, you can improve your chances of winning by following these five tips for submitting your work.
#1 Make sure this is the right contest for the piece of writing you have in mind.
I’ve been running the Junior Authors Short Story Contest for six years now, and every year young writers submit poems, scripts, and mini chapter books. None of these forms of writing can possibly win a short story contest, and typically we disqualify them before we even read them. I don’t want to waste the judges’ time by making them read and score a piece of writing that can’t possibly win. So the very first thing you need to do before you even think about entering, is make sure that you have the right kind of writing. Don’t send a poem to a short story contest or a script to a poetry contest.
#2 Read the rules, carefully.
Once you’ve determined that the contest is the right one, be sure to read the rules carefully. If there is a word count, honour it. Contest organizers have word counters too and will know if you are trying to cheat by going over the limit. Also, many contests have restrictions on theme and subject matter (though my contests don’t) so you want to make sure that you don’t get disqualified because you missed that.
#3 Read past winners and look for judging criteria.
Every year, I post the winning stories in each age category so that future contestants can see what we are looking for and get a sense of the calibre of the competition. Also, beneath the rules, I always post a note about the criteria we are looking for in a short story or poem. If the contest you want to enter has this information posted, take advantage of it. But don’t feel you need to imitate the styles or subject matter of past winners. Use your own voice and your own ideas. Just execute really well. And always send in your best work.
#4 Send in your best work.
I have been writing long enough to know when a young writer has sent in the first draft of a short story to the contest. First drafts are obvious, and they never win. Once you have finished writing the first draft, tuck it in a drawer for at least three days and then look at it again with fresh eyes. Cut everything that does not serve the plot. Look at your title. Does it really fit the work? If not, change it. The more you revise and proofread, the better your chances of winning.
#5 Format you submission properly.
For our contests, I post examples of what I want the entries to look like, but surprisingly few contestants bother to follow it. I also state clearly what information must appear at the top of the story, but many choose to leave it out. I often wonder why this is. After all, you would think that a writer would do everything possible to improve their odds of winning. But many don’t. Those who do format properly have an advantage when it come to determining the finalists. Little things like this say a lot about you as a writer. Writers are supposed to care about details, and, I can tell you from experience, the winning writers show us how much they care.
I know these five tips for winning a creative writing contest may seem arduous, but if you take them seriously, you will also be improving your odds of getting published. Publishers, editors, and contest judges look for the same things. It’s how they separate the writers from the wannabes.