How to Win a Contest

Inside Contest Tips and Tricks You May Not Know
by Hugh Wilson, Volunteer Staff Writer for Creative Writing Institute

If you want to win a writing contest, the first thing you must do is study the rules, which are called guidelines. Many entries are disqualified because the story has not met every requirement, e.g. if the rules state a maximum of 1000 words, an 1150-word story, however brilliant, will be disqualified.

Assuming you’ve done that bit right, the judges will be looking at four elements:

• Originality
• Creativity
• Style
• Technique

Let’s look at each and see what they mean to us as writers.


Winning stories come from second, third, tenth thoughts. Some contests give you a theme – “Wedding Day” for instance. What’s the first thought that comes to mind? Forget it. You can bet your last dollar that everyone else will have thought it, too. Angle is what makes a good story. Make your angle different, and the judges will love you.


Don’t “wrack your brains” to get ideas. Relax. Get your conscious, critical mind out of the way, and allow ideas to bubble up. In other words, daydream.

Ask yourself who, what, where, when, how, and “what if?” Let the trains of thought go where they will. Before long, you’ll have an idea for a story that is different. For example: what if the bride’s dog got in the church and jumped all over her as she marched down the aisle? Torn wedding dress. Tears. People scrambling to catch the dog. Mayhem. And what would be the outcome?

Or suppose a shy looking woman entered and sat at the back? At the reception, she avoids conversations, eats and drinks, then leaves.

Back in her lonel one-room apartment, she scans the Forthcoming Marriages column in the local paper, to see where her next free food and wine is coming from.


You won’t go far wrong if you remember three little words: keep it simple.

Don’t try to impress the judges with long, obscure words and “writerly” language. Like any other readers, they want a story that is easy to read.

A short story doesn’t have much room for scenery. Every sentence must move the plotline forward. The reader doesn’t want flowery descriptions of a rose garden in the moonlight. She wants to know what the girl is doing there at two in the morning, and what happens next.


A story has three distinct parts: beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning introduces the main character and what the story is about. This is the background scene, and yet that first sentence must be a catchy one. That’s your hook.

The middle develops the theme and keeps the reader hooked.

The ending must be believable and leave the reader satisfied. Too many otherwise good contest entries simply stop when they reach the maximum word count, without a good resolution.

And finally…

Always write specifically for that contest. Don’t be tempted to re-cycle an old story in the hope it just might fit the contest’s requirements. It won’t.

Above all, enjoy writing your short story entry, and the chances are the judges will like it.

Creative Writing Institute has a Spring Fling Anthology Contest going right now. It ends Feb. 28, 2013. No fee, cash prizes, and the best ten entries go into the anthology. Learn more at


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