Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.
I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.
When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.
So how do you survive the first cut?
- Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
- Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
- Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.
Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.
Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.
So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.
4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.
5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.
6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.
7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.
8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.