How to Make the First Cut in a Writing Contest
By Sara Backer
Who doesn’t want to win a contest? Winning a writing contest has been one of my goals for years, so when I was offered an opportunity to serve on a panel of volunteer judges for an international contest, I took it. I read over 1,000 entries and learned a lot about how writing appears from the other side of the desk.
Here’s my inside scoop on how to get the best consideration in a big contest. (Please keep in mind that what I share with you is purely personal from one experience and does not necessarily apply to all contests.)
• Timing matters. I used to assume judges started to read after the submission deadline. Not so: screening began as soon as entries came in. At first, eager to find good stories and poems, I read them all the way through and gave them the benefit of the doubt. Each day closer to the deadline brought more entries, and the most entries arrived on the very last day. By that time, I read quickly, often only the first paragraph or stanza, looking for reasons to stop reading and hit the rejection button. As a writer, I prefer to submit near the deadline because my work is usually out at other places, and if I get an acceptance, I don’t want to pay a non-refundable fee only to withdraw my sub. Now, I realize it’s better strategy to just spend the money and enter a contest as soon as it opens.
• Format predicts quality. While format errors are not deal breakers, I saw a clear correlation between professional formatting and professional writing. This contest was anonymous, so if the author’s name appeared anywhere, it was rejected unread. Be sure to omit your name not only from the first page of your manuscript, but the headers and footers. Double space prose, single space poetry, use 5-space tabs, turn off hyphenation, and never justify your margins. Center your title, which should not be italicized, underlined, or put in quotation marks. Capitalize title words correctly; don’t use all caps. If you’re writing science fiction, use Courier font; otherwise use Times New Roman, Times, or Garamond. Never shop at the Ministry of Silly Fonts to make your piece stand out, because it will stand out—as a loser.
• Grammar counts. Odds are good one persnickety English teacher among the judges will lose confidence in your writing the first time you use “it’s” when you mean “its.” Look at it this way; no one enjoys reading faulty predication, tense shifts, or misspelled words.
• Titles are important. You know that you decide to read or not read a piece based on its title; contest judges are no different. I was surprised that the majority of titles were dull. An intriguing title can get your story read before others. One way to do this is to put a specific or unusual word in the title. Instead of “Loss,” try “Her Last Almond Cookie.” Instead of “Heartache,” try “Subway Sparrow.” I was flabbergasted by the number of poems and stories titled “Mother’s Day” or “Father’s Day.” I immediately changed the title of a story I have on sub thanks to that little discovery.
• Avoid common themes. Some themes I now know are clichés: a loner student gets bullied, a protagonist of questionable sanity locked in an all-white room gets interrogated, a new mother sees the world afresh through the eyes of her toddler, the narrating character forgives a family member on his/her death bed, sex is wonderful, illness is awful, life goes on after divorce, the narrating character learns how to shoot a gun, turns out to be an alien sociopath, or turns out to be a cat.
• Avoid gimmicky structures. Anything that smacks of cleverness is a turn off. What annoyed me most were stories that referred to a mysterious “it” that wasn’t revealed. Let me create an example: Darla stepped furtively into the closet and shut the door. She couldn’t turn back now when so much was at stake, for she knew what she did in the next five minutes would change her life forever. Now, I understand the writer is thinking s/he wrote a hook, that the reader will have to know what the mysterious “it” is and keep reading, but I couldn’t care less. Hook me with specific information, not a vague ploy. For example: Darla stepped into the closet with her laptop, ready to look at the surveillance disc that might show her husband was cheating on her.
Of course, many factors are in play in a contest, among them are luck. This contest had a large judging panel. Anything that got three no votes in a row was ruled out. Since our tastes were diverse, many pieces I admired were gone before I had a chance to defend their merit. (Be of good cheer! Quick rejections don’t necessarily mean your writing sucks or won’t win a different contest.) But since luck and a judge’s personal taste are beyond your control, focus on the factors you can affect. If you take these tips to heart, you can improve your odds of making the first cut.
This year, Sara Backer won 3rd prize in Avalon Literary Review's contest and 2nd prize in the Gemini open poetry contest, and will keep entering contests until she gets a 1st prize win. For links to her stories and poems published online, visit www.sarabacker.com.