Tips for entering writing competitions

19/07/2019

We’ve been talking about writing competitions in my creative writing classes recently. Should you pay to enter? What makes an entry stand out? Where can you find out about competitions?

I’ll be sharing a list of current competitions on this blog shortly, but, in the meantime, here are some tips from our recent discussions:

Give yourself enough time. Working to competition deadlines is a good way to motivate yourself to produce and complete work – one of my students recommended entering the monthly Scottish Book Trust 50-Word fiction competition and weekly Ad Hoc Fiction micro fiction competition which both have themed prompts. But give yourself enough time to put your entry away for a few days (ideally more) so you can look at it with fresh eyes before submitting.

Read and follow the rules. Entries that don’t will be rejected straight away. It’s also a good idea to re-read the rules immediately before you submit in case you’ve strayed from them while writing and revising your piece.

Proofread closely and carefully. It’s hard to spot errors on screen so always use a printed copy for this. Reading your piece out loud can also help to highlight clunky parts and mistakes.

Don’t forget the theme. If there’s a theme your piece needs to relate to it in some way. But don’t be too obvious. The best competition entries tend to interpret themes in an original or striking way. Try writing a list of 20 different ways you could write about the theme – your later ideas are likely to be the most interesting.

Impersonate the judge. Read your story quickly – imagine you’re the competition judge and have a huge pile of entries to get through. Does it stand out? Is anything confusing or irritating? Would you put it on a shortlist?

Begin and end well. Imagine you’re the judge again. What would make you read on? Try deleting your first line or paragraph to see if this makes the opening more involving. Think carefully about how to end your piece. It needs to resonate as well as make sense. Try writing the ending first and the beginning last.

Be yourself. It can be helpful to look at what kind of stories/poems have won the competition previously. Are they literary? Funny? Relatable? But don’t let this restrict you – write what you want to write rather than what you think the judge wants to see. Be yourself and use your own voice.

Do a cost-benefit analysis. It’s easy for the cost of entering competitions to build up. Here are some things to consider when deciding whether to pay:

  • Competitions with bigger entry fees (or that are only open to particular groups) may attract fewer entries.
  • Do organisers publish a substantial longlist/shortlist of commended entries (giving you a higher chance of gaining benefit from entering)?
  • Is the competition raising funds for a cause you support?
  • Do the organisers give feedback on entries?

Keep trying. Reading the winning entries can sometimes give you a clue about to why your piece didn’t succeed. But remember that it often comes down to luck, with judges choosing from entries of a similar quality at the final stages. Always send your piece out again.

If you want to find out about competitions, try the listings in Writers’ Forum, Writing Magazine and Mslexia. Writing Magazine publishes a useful annual competition guide and Morgen Bailey’s Comp Calendar page in Writers’ Forum has interviews with judges and lists of upcoming competitions. And, of course, these magazines run their own competitions too. You can also follow competition organisers and writing organisations (especially local ones) on Twitter and look at websites such as Short Stops (short story news and opportunities), Cathy’s Comps & Calls, Creative Writing Ink, Neon Books, Writing Competitions, the novel writing competitions list on Jessica Davidson’s website, and Christopher Fielden’s short story website.