An insider’s guide for those who want to enter a writing competition.
What the judges are looking for?
A good read!
Judges take part because they love reading. It is so exciting to receive batches of competition entries. We never know what we are going to get.
While there is usually a small proportion of poor quality writing, the majority of writing falls in the middle ground. The writing is solid, but it has nothing to differentiate it from the crowd.
It is important, therefore, to stand out from the pack.
You could do this with a different take on a common situation, or the voice/style of writing. A strong, assured voice gives me confidence the writer knows where they are going. A weak voice lacks that confidence to lead the reader, a little like ballroom dancing.
Open and close your story in the right place. Avoid clichés. Put the reader in the story with sensory detail.
Don’t withhold information from the reader unless you have a reason to do so. Why introduce a character by their pronoun only, then bring their name in on the next page? In the absence of this information, your reader will have subconsciously filled in the blanks, only to have to revise their image of the character when you finally come up with the goods.
Unique metaphors are refreshing, when they work. Similarly, an unusual structure will make me look deeper, but there must be something behind the edge. In other words, now is not the time to experiment for experimentation’s sake.
Beneath it all, your story must have an interesting, credible plot inhabited by character(s) the reader wants to root for, and all narrated coherently.
Make it easy for the judge to read your story. Many competitions specify a font style and size for this reason. Where the rules include such formatting requirements – follow them.
To sum up, competitions are about showcasing your talent. You need the technique to tell a good yarn, plus the ability to tell it in a way that feels fresh.
Dos and Don’ts
- DO follow the submission guidelines. If the rules are that your entry must be free of identifying information, check your name does not appear on the file.
- DO check you are within the word limit.
- DO send your best work, and polish it up until it gleams. Run your story through spellchecker.
- WHERE POSSIBLE have another person read your story before you submit. Ask them to identify typos and any sentence or phrase they have to read more than once to understand its meaning. You might be too close to the rock face to see errors or ambiguities.
- DON’T submit before you have edited, formatted and double-checked for typos. Such errors in an entry give the impression you don’t care about your writing.
- DON’T submit a document format unsupported by the competition entry system. We won’t be able to read it.
- DON’T leave it until the last minute to enter. Competitions are often deluged around the deadline, leaving the judges less time to consider your entry.
Writing competitions are subjective. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get placed this time around. Keep honing your craft until the next time.
The cost of entry supports the administration of running a competition, including website hosting fees; the running of the platform which ensures the details you enter on the form and your anonymous entry stay linked, and which batches up and distributes entries to the judges; and the prize. In the main, if judges receive any payment at all, it will be a nominal sum which falls far short of the time spent reading entries.
Many competitions recognise that not every writer can afford the entry fee. For this reason, you may find they offer free entrance to writers in need.
About the Author
Amanda Read is a reader for the Bath Short Story Award. She also writes novel-length and short fiction, and is a freelance content/copy writer (specialising in science), copy editor, proofreader, structural editor, and creative writing mentor.