“This is the worst contest entry I’ve ever read, and I’ve been judging for twenty years.”
Ouch. It doesn’t sound like that author is going to win any writing contests, does it?
That’s a direct quote from the score sheet of the first writing contest I ever entered. Yet, somehow I’ve managed to place in more chapter contests than I can count and final in the Golden Heart with two different manuscripts. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about writing contests.
Before I give you the secrets to winning writing contests, I must post some disclaimers:
I’m not writing about anyone in particular here. Everything in this blog is based on patterns I’ve observed when interacting with large groups of writers. Your personal experience may differ.
A single writing contest means nothing. No one wins every contest entered. There’s always the chance you’ll get the crazy judge, and you can’t do anything about crazy. Here, I’m talking about gradually progressing over a period of time until you can regularly advance to the final round and get your manuscripts in front of editors and agents.
Here’s what you need to know to win writing contests:
Attitude is Everything.
Believe it or not, your attitude shows in your manuscript. It shows in how you string words together. It shows in your characters. It shows in how you respond to contest feedback.
Stop Showing Off. If you think you’re some kind of writing genius and your brilliance far exceeds the intellect of stupid contest judges, you will get low scores. Judges get tired of being yanked out of the story with cutesy one-liners and complicated prose. Nobody cares if you wrote your entry in iambic pentameter. They just want to be caught up in a good story.
Read the score sheet and the rules BEFORE the contest: This sounds obvious, but I’m frequently approached by outraged authors whose low scores were perfectly predictable. If the score sheet lists required elements and you do not include them, the judge cannot give you a high score, no matter how much she loves your story.
Read the score sheet AFTER the contest: Look at the numbers. If you consistently score low on the same elements, you need to stop entering contests and take a class on that topic. Hone your craft and the rest will fall into place.
Get all the Easy Points: You should always get a perfect score on the “Mechanics” section. Submitting an entry that is full of spelling and grammar errors shows contempt for the judges. Don’t be surprised if their comments reflect that same insulting attitude back onto your manuscript.
Show you Know the Rules Before You Break Them: When used sparingly, fragments and odd punctuation can be used to great effect. Just be sure it’s obvious that’s what you’re doing. You’re not Jack Kerouac, and On the Road wasn’t his first novel.
Stop Making Excuses: Authors tend to come up with explanations for why they can’t get ahead. “Judges don’t like stories written in first person.” “Judges don’t like strong heroines.” “Contests only reward mediocre writing.” Yet, I’ve seen winning entries disprove all of these theories. Don’t let myths keep you from hearing what the judges are actually saying.
Listen. Really. Listen.
There is only one difference between those who succeed at contests and those who don’t. The winners have learned how to set aside their emotions and use the judge’s feedback properly. Sometimes it’s hard to get past the snarky comments to the lesson hidden underneath, but you have to do it if you want to learn anything from the experience.
Know when to polish, and when to start over: If your scores are typically lower than 60% of the total possible, you probably want to start over. But if you regularly score in the 80% range, you only need to polish. Don’t throw out the first chapter and rewrite it just because you didn’t final. If you do, you will always be submitting a first draft and your chances for success will plummet.
Don’t enter before you’re ready: Twice I’ve entered contests on a whim, typing up the final pages minutes before the deadline. Both times, I thought I was just entering to get feedback on an idea. Both times, I ended up in the finals, embarrassed to have a first draft in front of a final editor. Don’t do it. Only put your polished work out there. Trust me on this.
Volunteer to Judge: It’s the easiest way to learn how judges think.You’ll see your own writing differently once you’ve seen other writers making the same mistakes.
Lose the Anger. Angry, bitter writers tend to write angry, bitter characters. No one enjoys spending time with a hateful heroine. If you’re miserable because you’ve failed to succeed in the harsh world of publishing, take a year off and rediscover the joy of writing.
Attitude is everything. No, that repetition is not an error.
Love writing, love what you write, and the judges will love it too.
So, there you have my tips on how consistently win writing contests. I would love to hear your tips, comments and suggestions.