Thursday, April 15, 2021

How to Win Short Story Contests: Insights from A Writing Competition Judge

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Thinking about entering a short story contest? Rayne Hall shares tips on how to improve your chances at winning.

Contests are great for short story writers, because they motivate you to create more stories and to revise them until they sparkle like diamonds. If your story wins, you'll gain recognition, validation that your writing is good, a boost for your credentials. You may also reap a cash prize, and perhaps a certificate, trophy or plaque to display.

So how do you make your story stand out in the eyes of the contest judges?

Of course, you need to write a really good story. All the usual guidelines for story writing apply: character, goal, motivation, conflict, structure, dialogue, hook, satisfying ending and more. Unless you've mastered the craft of short story writing, your chances of success are small, and no insider tricks will help.

But here are several steps you can take to draw the judges' attention to your good story and win their favor.

I've been a judge on many writing competitionssometimes the only judge, more often part of a judging paneland I know from experience where many writers go wrong. Today, I'm sharing insider tips. Some of them may surprise you.

1. Submit your story early.

Try to be among the first who submit.

In many competitions, the judges start reading as soon as the entries arrive. At the beginning, there's only a trickle of stories coming in, and every story gets read carefully. Near the closing date, a deluge of entries arrives. The judges have less time to devote to each story, and they're jaded, because they've read the same kind of story so many times already. A good story arriving in the first few days after the contest opens is more likely to make it to the shortlist than an equally good tale arriving on the closing date.

2. Stick to the word count.

If the competition rules stipulate '2000-3000 words' then your story must fall into that bracket. This seems obvious, but surprisingly many contestants don't abide by the word count. I've received many entries where the entrants submitted stories just a few words over the limit3010 words instead of 3000. Don't think the judges won't notice, or that they will make an exception for you because your story is so brilliant. If your entry exceeds the word-count, it won't even get read.

So, spend a few minutes and find words you can shave off before you submit. If the story really can't be told within the given word limit, write a different one.

By the way, the word-count refers to the story itself, and doesn't include the story title and author name.

(Here's more with The 5 Most Common Misconceptions About Writing Contests — Debunked)

3. Don't tell the judges why you deserve to win.

Some entrants think they can sway judges with a personal plea. They preface their stories with a paragraph begging for the prize. ("Please choose my story. I know it's not very good, but I have a sick husband and seven kids, and my therapist says that winning this contest would be good for my self-esteem.")

The judges are looking for the best story, not for the most needy or deserving citizens. If your entry starts with a personal plea instead of a great story hook, it will get discarded.

4. Follow the format.

The contest rules will say how to submit your entry: in the body of an email, as an attachment, through a submission site, or printed with double-spacing on white paper. Send it exactly as stipulated.

Surprisingly many entrants ignore formatting ruleseither because they haven't bothered to read them, or because they think their story is so wonderful that the judges will make an exceptionand those pieces get weeded out immediately, unread.

Be especially careful about the email heading. If the rules require you to put 'Entry: Udduddu Writing Contest 2021' then this is exactly what you have to write. The contest organizer's system is programmed to deliver only emails with this precise heading into the folder for the competition. If your email is headed 'My Competition Story' it won't arrive. Even a small mistakesuch as a typo, or 'Writer's Contest' instead of 'Writing Contest' means your entry will be lost.

(Here's more with Writing Contests: How to Write to Win)

5. Focus on the theme, don't just mention it.

If the contest has a themesuch as 'Mother's Day' or 'Dangerous Insects'make the theme central to your tale. To win, your story must do more than include the themeit must be about the theme. For a 'Mother's Day'-themed writing contest, it's not enough that the events happen to play out on Mother's Day. The judges will select an entry that explores the meaning of Mother's Day, with a conflict built around it.

Many entrants, instead of crafting a new story that's perfect for the competition, simply send in an already-written piece, and insert a few words to mention the theme. Years ago, I was on the judging panel for a contest with the theme 'Garden Shed'and obviously, we were looking for stories which were about garden sheds. But in most entries, a garden shed didn't even play a significant role. The authors merely inserted the words somewhere ('He walked past the garage and the garden shed and rang the doorbell'), expecting to get away with this. Their stories technically qualifiedbut they were not chosen for the shortlist.

6. Interpret the theme in an unusual way.

The contest's theme immediately brings up certain associations. The first idea coming to your mind may be the same that everyone else is thinking of. If you write that story, chances are, the judges have already read many similar ones, so yours merely elicits a yawn.

For example, when I helped judge that 'Garden Shed' competition, I got one story after another featuring a husband who spent time in the shed to get away from his wife. I groaned, "Not another one of those." Very few of them made it to the shortlist. I discussed this with the other judges, and they weren't enthusiastic either about reading endless variations of the same story. (One observed that even the names were often the samehusband Albert sought the peace of the garden shed to escape his demanding wife Sally.)

Interpretations that stood out and made it to the shortlist included a man trying to erect an 'easy self-assembly' flatpack shed, and a woman who coveted a shed so much that she would go to any length to obtain it.

(Here's more with Are Writing Contests and Book Reviews Worth It?)  

7. Choose an unexpected point of view.

You can make your story stand out by telling it from an unexpected perspective. For example, if the contest theme is 'Wedding', most entries will tell a story in which the main character is the bride. Some others may focus on the groom, a bridesmaid, or the mother-of-the-bride. Take a step away from the obvious and consider who else could be involved in a wedding. How about a caterer, a photographer, or the cleaner dealing with the mess after the event? What might their goals, experiences, dilemmas be?

However, please don't enter a story from the point of view of a dog. Almost every contest I've judged had one or several entries with canine POV. It seldom works well enough for the story to stand out.

8. Emphasize the story goal.

What does the main character want or need to achieve during the story, and why? Find a way to state this clearly in the first paragraph, because that's a powerful way to hook readers (including short story judges) and keep them hooked to the end.

At the end, show whether the character has achieved the goal. This will make the ending feel satisfactory to the reader.

In my experience as a short story competition judge, the main weakness of many contest entries is the lack of goal and motivation. Stories in which the main character doesn't need anything, or has no convincing reason for this desire, rarely make it to the shortlist, however beautiful the prose.

(Here's more with The Value of Critiques and Writing Contests)

9. Beware the anticlimax.

Many contest stories have held my attention with a captivating story goal, well-written prose and a suspenseful plot... and then the ending was a let-down.

The end of the story needs to satisfy the reader by showing whether or not the main character has achieved their goal. The answer can be 'yes' (happy ending) or 'no' (unhappy ending). It can even be 'yes, but' (moderately happy) or 'no, but' (moderately unhappy). But it has to be clear, or the readers (including the contest judges) will feel frustrated.

Most story competition judges have the same pet peeve: stories which end with '... and then the character woke up, because it was only a dream.' Or a simulation or a computer game. These endings are anticlimactic, because they build the reader's suspense, and then deliver nothing at all.

Your story's ending should be more exciting than what came before, giving the readers even more than what they expected. Never give the readers less than they anticipate.

10. Make sure your entry fee arrives.

Many contests charge a fee per submission. This is to defray their costs, to make a profit, or to raise funds for a charity. If you don't want to pay the fee, don't enter the contest.

Some writers think say, "I don't want to waste my money if my story doesn't win. I'll wait, and if it gets selected, I'll send the payment." But those stories never enter the judging system.

Some contests have automated systems, where you submit electronically and get directed to a payment site. Others expect you to pay by bank transfer or to send a check, and with those, the payment can become separated from the entry. I've been involved in several contests where the organizers didn't receive or couldn't find the fees for some entries. The main cause of confusion is that the name of the bank account differs from the name of the email or the pen name on the manuscript.

Make sure it's clear which story the payment is for.

What's your experience? Have you ever entered a writing contest? What's been your experience? If you're a competition judge, do you have any advice to add?

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

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  1. Thanks for featuring my article. :-)

  2. If anyone has questions, please ask. I'll be happy to reply. Also, tell us about your competition experience. Have you participated in a contest where the stories were handed to the judges as soon as they arrived? Or did the organisers wait until the closing date before passing the manuscripts to the judges?

  3. Great article! I've submitted to many writing contests, but often turn in my story on the last day possible. I'm about to change that habit.

    1. Good plan. Although it doesn't apply to all contests, it often happens, so you can give your stories a better chance by submitting early.

  4. What great tips! Speaking as one who has coordinated a couple of anthologies for one of my writing groups, I know that there are a surprising number of writers out there who don't really know what formatting means. They don't know how to format a paragraph, for example, or even change their font. If I were a real editor, I would've disqualified some 15-25% of our submissions on formatting grounds alone. The moral of that story is that writers need to learn the tools of their trade!

    1. Yes. As the coordinator of anthologies for a writing group, you were probably a lot more patient and helpful than a short story competition judge. Contest organisers and judges are glad when they can disqualify an entry unread, because it saves work. :-D -- It's the writer's responsibility to meet all criteria, including formatting. If someone doesn't understand formatting, they should seek help from someone who does. Carelessness doesn't pay.

  5. Great post, thank you. I particularly appreciated the pointers on how to stand out favorably from the other entries.

    1. You're welcome, Peace Writer. I hope the pointers will help your entry stand out in the next competition you enter. :-)

  6. Thanks for the helpful tips from one who knows. The one about entering near the beginning is totally new for me. Shows me I need to keep up on contests in a more timely way.

    A question about endings: It seems to me a lot of published stories end on what doesn't seems like an ending at all. I'm not fond it this practice. I have a short story I entered in a few contests some time ago. I didn't want a non-ending like so many I've seen, but I thought it best not to be too in-your-face about it. Besides, my protagonist is just then thinking for the first time about embarking on a course of action--but hasn't made up her mind yet--that would go a long way towards the emotional healing she needs. (It's a course of action suggested by events that happened just before the ending.) My question: Can the ending suggest the next step somewhat subtly (but not secretly, ha) without coming right out and saying "This is what's going to happen"? Especially in a case like this when she hasn't even made up her mind yet, but even considering it is a huge step forward?

    1. So what you're shooting for is an open ending. Open endings can be satisfactory - but only if they're handled well.

      If the story asked a question at the beginning (as it should), e.g. 'Will she get the job?' or 'Will she win the scholarship?', then this question needs to be answered. 'Yes, she gets the job/scholarship' or 'No, she doesn't get the job/scholarship'. There can also be answers which are not quite so happy/unhappy: 'Yes, she gets the job/scholarship but no longer wants it' or 'No, she doesn't get the job/scholarship but she gets something better instead.' However you end the story, the story question must be answered.

      To create an open ending that satisfies the reader, you need to answer the story question, and pose a new question arising from it: Yes, she got offered the job/scholarship... but will she accept it?

      This will make the reader think: "If I was in her place, after all that has happened, would I accept this job/scholarship?" This can leave the reader thinking for a long time, sometimes for days after they've finished the story.

      A poorly handled open ending is one that doesn't answer the story question, and thus leaves the readers dissatisfied, feeling that they've wasted their time reading.

      I hope this helps with your story plotting.

  7. Very interesting article - Thank you Ms. Rayne Hall.

  8. Diana Atanasova4/20/2021 2:38 PM

    Yet another interesting read from Rayne Hall. I am not a writer but I am a keen reader and I''ve always been curious about the life and work of the professional writers. I also enjoyed reading about what the work of the judges involves. I would like to know where I can find and read short stories which have won contests. That would be a great read.

    1. I believe some contest organisers publishing anthologies of their winning stories. Though those are only the winners of that particular contest.

  9. Very informative, as always, Rayne. I have entered many contests, and to my surprise I won a nonfiction contest a few years ago. I just entered two about a month ago. I found your suggestions very helpful, especially interpreting the theme in an unusual way. Thanks, Carole

    1. Hi Carole, I think you'll be good at interpreting the theme in a different way. :-)

  10. Excellent article. I enjoyed the discussion of theme, goal! and a different viewpoint - things you don't see in other discussions.
    Thanks, Rayne.

    1. And yet, those topics are crucial for writing short stories - whether for contests or for publication.


  11. Thanks for all the tips. I would like to write more short stories and you have given me lots of good ideas for improving me including getting in early

    1. You're welcome, Alex. Are you entering short story contests? Or planning to?

  12. I'm very new to the world of short story contests, so I appreciate the advice and tips. It is especially helpful when they're so clearly presented. Thank you!

    1. Best of luck with your short story contest entries this year. :-)

  13. I read this post simply because I have a quiet night and was intrigued. As a regular short story writer and prizewinner, A judge of many short story and poetry competitions I thought to debunk some of the silly things often written in blogs of this sort. My apologies to Rayne who obviously knows what she is talking about. Good stuff.

    1. Yes, there are some silly myths about, mostly spread by writers who pretend insights they don't have. Which myth do you most want to debunk?

  14. Hi Rayne,

    Great article and really good advice. As a contest judge myself, I would add emotional impact. If I can read your short story or flash fiction and not really feel some strong emotion, it doesn't make the cut. Make me angry. Make me sad. Scare the hell out of me or give me a "new puppy" moment. This is the element I find most lacking in contest entries.