How to Win a Writing Contest

Secrets to Winning a Creative Writing Contest

by Deborah Owen, CEO of Creative Writing Institute

Contests are like cars. There are a lot of them and no two are the same, but this is an overview of how Creative Writing Institute judges their annual writing contest. This year, it runs from July 15 – September 1, 2015.

First, the judges do a quick sorting. They place stories that might have a chance to win in one pile and stories that have no chance of winning in another. Needless to say, those in the latter pile hit file 13. Your first question should be, on that first sorting, what are the judges looking for? Among other things:

a. Very poor grammar
b. Very poor punctuation
c. Long, drawn out discourses that make no point
d. DEAD and DULL FIRST PARAGRAPHS
e. NOT FOLLOWING the STATED RULES
f. Not using the theme line, word for word!

The judges’ first scanning is not an in-depth reading. It simply sorts the big pile into a smaller one. There will be at least four full readings of each story by each judge.

You will win or lose a judge’s interest in the first paragraph, so be sure that first paragraph begins in the middle of an ACTION scene. Don’t lead up to the action. You don’t have time for that in a short story. Jump in with both feet. Next, develop that action until it reaches the climax about 2/3 of the way through and use the last 1/3 to form a conclusion and tie up loose ends.

Do all judges look for the same things? No. Each judge is as different as a snowflake. They may look alike on the writerly surface, but their thoughts and interests are as different as night and day, and that is what makes a good judging panel.

Here’s a clue. Our judges are not into romance. Does that mean you can’t enter a tactful romance story? No. Does it mean a romance story can’t or won’t win? NO. It was just a hint.  🙂

Another clue: the head judge would like to see some mystery stories this year. Does that mean the winning entry will BE a mystery story? No, but clever writers will certainly think twice before submitting to another genre (For newbies, genre means division – such as drama, fantasy, crime, etc.). But then again, some judges would prefer fantasy! In the end, the best, most captivating story will win, no matter what the genre.

Creative Writing Institute likes to run “themed contests” where the story centers around a certain phrase. This year’s theme sentence is, “I got more than I bargained for!” (You may choose your own punctuation, but those exact words must be in the story, in that order.) This is a fun theme!

The number one reason for disqualification is NOT FOLLOWING the RULES. Last year we had a winning entry that used one swear word. The judges were so into the story that none of them caught it, but I did and the instructions clearly said, “no swear words.” We even published a brief list of what we considered swear words (much to my chagrin) AND the address of the head judge in case anyone had a question.

Why do we have a “list” of swear words? Because we are an international organization that is based in the USA and even Americans hold heated debates on which words are or are not considered swearing. Why don’t we include swear words from other nations? Because it would be impossible to make a list of every country’s swearing slang.

The next question might be, “Why don’t you allow swear words?” One reason is… swear words are a form of telling instead of showing. (Note to beginners: a technique called Show, Don’t Tell means you should always show an emotion with action instead of description. For example, instead of saying, “Jarod was angry at the little boy and pushed him into a bush,” you could show his anger by saying, “Jarod drop-kicked the little runt into the shrub.”)

Another reason we don’t want swearing is because our anthologies are suitable family material. Believe it or not, not everyone swears!

We have already mentioned following the rules, which you would think would be a no-brainer, but to be sure you have conformed to the guidelines, read every single rule one more time before you submit. If we call for a limit of 2,000 words and you send 2,005, guess what? No matter what the quality of the story, it will hit file 13.

The quickest way to win is to write an original story totally based around I got more than I bargained for. The quickest way to lose (and embarrass yourself) is to pull a pre-written story out of mothballs, insert the theme line where it fits best and submit it.

I speak from experience. I tried this little number on a writing teacher years ago when she told me to write a story and insert a certain theme line. It seemed like a silly exercise to me and I was pushed for time, so I pulled an old story out, dropped the line in and submitted it. (*blushes… in my defense, this was the only time I ever did anything deliberately dishonest.)  I thought I was so slick and so smart, until I got her comment which read, “It almost looks like you used an old story and just dropped that line in. Rewrite it and make it blend.” Well… *duh, our judges are smart enough to figure that out, too!

On rounds 2 and 3, our judges usually grade each story from 1-10 and then they total the points for each story. It takes a terrific story to make it to 8, 9, and 10. By the time the judges get to round 4, bloodshot eyes are crossing, every person answers to any name, none are sure which way is up and the coffee has long ago run out so sometimes the head judge changes the method of tallying to, “This time we will deduct points for ________.”

All entries will be judged on originality, creativity, style and technique.

Originality

Plain and simple – how original your ideas are. There are no new stories, but there are always new angles. Day dream a little bit to find something spicy. Keep asking yourself, “What if… ?” That will open dozens of unique ideas.

Creativity

Creativity is how you express yourself. You might use similes, metaphors, emotives, or all of the above plus a whole lot more.

Style

Your writing style will reveal who you are, how you think, how you express yourself and what voice you use. (Hint: stories written in past tense, third person [using he, she and it] sell the quickest… and win the most contests.)

Technique

Writing technique includes the point of view, visualization of scenes and people, style of dialogue, how you write flashbacks (or if you use them at all), red herrings, foreshadowing, etc. It can also refer to the more technical aspects of rhythm, harmony, assonance, alliteration, personification and the like. All of these things equal your technique and the voice that is peculiar to you.

Seldom do we have a clear winner. We have ties more often than rabbits nibble carrots and when that happens, we pass the smelling salts and deodorant around and see how it goes. Under the careful scrutiny of our head judge, Ms. Jo Popek, judges may politely “argue” why “their pick” should win. By the time they emerge with a list of winners, it’s a wonder they are still friends, and an even greater wonder that they will return to the judging panel again next year!

Once you get contesting in your blood, you will have to enter at least two a year. Writing for a contest is one of the greatest, quickest ways to learn from your own writing.

Above all, enjoy the writing experience… and support our nonprofit charity by purchasing our anthology in December.

May the best author win!

SEE CONTEST RULES AT http://www.CreativeWritingInstitute.com.

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3 thoughts on “How to Win a Writing Contest

  1. This is a wonderful article, Deb. Thank you very much for this post; I am sure that if I pay attention to what you have written I will have a better chance of submitting a winning story. Or at least one that doesn’t immediately land in the round file. Wishing you the best, Denise

    On Mon, Aug 10, 2015 at 7:05 PM, Writing Tips from Creative Writing

    Liked by 1 person

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