Ten Ways to NOT Win

Ten Ways to NOT Win

One of our most popular workshops has been Write to Win, a full-day focus on writing contests with Dorothea Helms and Ruth E. Walker.

Since Writescape is in the midst of wrapping up the first-tier judging of our own writing contest, we thought it might be fun to share one of the tip lists from that workshop.

Here’s the Top Ten Tips to Avoid Winning Writing Contests:

1. Don’t enter. Contest judges can only assess the entries they receive. Have you ever looked at winning entries and thought that your story is just as strong–or maybe stronger? Dorothea and Ruth have both been judges for regional, national and international writing contests. And frankly, we’re not always looking at the very best writing. You never know who has entered, how strong your work is in comparison and what might catch a judge’s eye. In short, you are guaranteed never to win–if you don’t enter.

2. Exceed the word count for prose or line count for poetry. Word counts are there for a reason. No matter how brilliant your words are, if there are more than the contest limit, you are disqualified. Read the guidelines and follow them.

3. Forget to include the entry fee. Online submissions often make this part easy but sometimes paying the entry fee is a separate step. And there are still a few contests out there that ask for mail delivery. IF you do forget after pressing SEND, you can try to contact the contest administrators and ask if they’ll accept your fee arriving late. NOTE: Dorothea and Ruth will tell you that running a professional writing contest takes time and money (advertising, judge honoraria, etc.) and that the entry fee is meant to offset those costs. For literary journals, writing organizations and other non-profits, contests can be part of fundraising. So it’s a good thing to not forget that fee.

4. Send something inappropriate (e.g. poetry for a prose contest or vice versa). In the same way that you don’t send a thriller novel manuscript to a publisher of children’s literature, make sure you have a submission that fits the contest. As an editor for a literary journal, Ruth received fiction entries to the annual poetry contest. Just like exceeding the word-count guidelines will get you eliminated, ignoring what the contest is about moves your entry immediately to the NO pile.

5. Enter with previously published material if the rules specify that it be original and unpublished. Dorothea and Ruth have each experienced this awkward situation in separate contests. In both cases, the top three winners and honourable mention entries were already informed of their status when one of the winning writers revealed their work had been accepted and published elsewhere. Not only did both of these writers get disqualified but some of the other top three entries suddenly found they “progressed” in the contest. While it was good news, finding out you are now getting the gold medal when you were celebrating silver is less than ideal.

6. Put your name on your submission when the rules specify not to. It’s an easy mistake to make as most writers have their name in the footer or header of their work in draft format. But it will probably get you disqualified.

7. Leave out your contact information. Unless the guidelines tell you to, don’t put it on your entry (see #6) but your cover letter needs to have it. With online submissions your contact info is part of the process. But there are still contests that ask for mail delivery so make sure contest administrators have a way to reach you.

8. “Decorate” your entry, hand-write or use a BOLD or italicized font throughout. Keep your entry professional and simple in appearance and tone. Unless the contest rules state otherwise, default to standard formatting (2-inch margins, double spaced) with Times New Roman 12 pt font. As we’ve noted before : Read the guidelines.

9. Don’t read previous winners to see what a successful entry looks like. Contests are like any kind of submission. You research what the literary agent is looking for in a client. You check out the books a publisher produces to see if your book fits. When you read past winners’ work, you get a sense if your story or poem or novel excerpt might fit.

10. Don’t bother to double check before pressing SEND. Oh the agony. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Been so confident our work was ready. Or so tired and it’s 10 minutes to deadline. Or so distracted and busy we just want to get it done. And we do. We press SEND. And then we read the entry at some later point and slap the side of our head because the typo in the third paragraph is YELLING at our eyes. So. Stop. Think. If you can, put it away to look at one last time tomorrow. And then press SEND. Or drop the envelope into the mailbox. Because, you know, #1 on the list.

Find Your Way to First Place

Find Your Way to First Place

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy.

Writescape shares sage advice from award-winning humour writer and writing contest judge and administrator, Dorothea Helms, on entering and winning writing contests. Dorothea offers her special branch of magic and insider insights in The Top Drawer.

Winning writing contests is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced during my career. In addition to validation for my writing from an objective source, the wins have brought money, publication, plaques, prizes and prestige. Oh, and surprise. I once came in third place in a poetry contest with a submission that didn’t begin “There once was a …” Contest wins listed on my writer’s CV have also added credibility.

I don’t know of a magic formula for winning (even though I’m The Writing Fairy), but I do have some tips I’d like to share on how to increase your chances.

  1. Be creative in your approach to the contest topic
  2. Follow the rules
  3. Write with abandon, but polish your writing with care
  4. Follow the rules
  5. Enter
  6. Follow the rules

Sound simplistic? For years, I have served as a writing contest judge from local to national levels, and I have run several contests myself. I’m always astounded at the number of entrants who ignore the rules. To be fair to all competitors, contest judges must eliminate those who don’t follow the rules.

Here are some reminders:

Word Count Maximumsnumbers

If the maximum word count is 2,500 and your entry is 2,501, it will be eliminated before it’s even read. I’ve had to axe entries for this mistake many times. What a shame; often, they are brilliant submissions.

 

Published versus Unpublished

If the rules stipulate that the piece has to be original and unpublished, make sure it is. It’s easy for contest administrators to do a Google search for a sentence and find out if it’s on a website somewhere. I’ve done that and found published work that has been entered as unpublished.

Entry Fee

coins-948603_640Many respected writing contests include entry fees. It costs money to run a contest, even when there are volunteers involved. Some journals give you a year’s subscription to their magazine as part of your entry fee. Some give you feedback on your entry. If you choose to submit to a contest with an entry fee, remember to include your payment. This is part of the rules you need to read.

 

Read, Read, Read Those Rules

referee-1149014_640The best way to start following the rules is to read them. In one of my Writing Fairy contests, after I published the names of the ten finalists, one of them contacted me to say he had just read the rules and that his entry had been previously published in a major US newspaper. I had to eliminate his piece, and it took time and effort to figure out who was next in line to take his spot in the top ten.

 

Enter

When it comes to increasing your chances of winning writing contests, the only thing worse than not following the rules is not entering. If you read winning contest entries and think, I can do better than that, then do better than that and send it in.

Oh, and did I mention—follow the rules?

DorotheaRead more about Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at www.thewritingfairy.com

Want to know more about entering and winning contests? Dorothea Helms teams up with Writescape’s Ruth Walker for Write to Win, a one-day workshop that covers everything from entering, to judging, to winning, to celebrating. Write to Win is a winner of a workshop.