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Writing Contests: Why Enter and How to Win
by Kathryn Lay
Contests are profitable (in more than one way),
encouraging, a chance for learning and preparation, and motivating.
There are 5 reasons that entering contests can be beneficial to your
1. Learning Manuscript Preparation. You won't
win a contest with a sloppy, ill prepared, hard-to-read manuscript. As a contest
entrant, I've seen how manuscripts sent in a hurry kept me from winning at all.
Sometimes after studying the scoring points or judge's comments, I found that my
3rd Place or Honorable Mention would have placed higher if I had been more
careful checking my spelling, making sure the my ink wasn't too light, and
making sure to follow every rule.
As a contest judge, I've often had to choose
between one or another well-written entry as final winner. Sometimes, the
manuscript mechanics becomes the final decision. If it's bad enough, it is
weeded out right away for the same reason.
By making sure your manuscripts are in the best
of shape for a contest, you'll be ready to send it on to an editor. And by
taking the time to carefully read and follow the rules of a contest, I've been
more careful about reading guidelines for publishers and learning what they
2. Entering contests are a good way to receive
an unbiased critique from someone who doesn't know who you are. They are
comparing your piece to others entered in the same category, much like an editor
comparing the huge amount of manuscripts received every day. I've used the
critiques received for both winning and non-winning manuscripts to make them
more saleable before sending out. Some suggestions have made the manuscripts
better. Other suggestions I've ignored.
You don't always have to win a contest for it to
be worth your time to enter, as long as critiques are promised. Yet, you have to
be careful how seriously you take a contest. The judges do their best, but
sometimes it is personal opinion or the amount of submissions to the contest are
high. Therefore, a manuscript that doesn't win may still be very good and
Don't let a loss get you down, but do let a win
3. Approval. Rejections come hard, but winning
contests can build your self-confidence once more. When you've learned that your
manuscript competed against a 100 or even 25 others and came out on top, you
feel recharged, ready to pound on those editor doors once again. And, if you
don't win, well, you know that you were up against many others and...if you can
handle it, you can handle whatever happens to your 'babies' when they're shipped
off to editors.
4. Monetary awards. In 1995, nearly 1/3 of my
writing income came from contest wins. Some of my stories made more money in
contests than when they finally sold.
Another advantage of contests is that you can
enter the same manuscript in several different contests, though not in the same
contest the next year. Several wins on one well-written manuscript is very
5. Recognition. Sitting in an awards ceremony,
hearing your name called and going forward to receive your award amidst applause
is a great boost to your writing ego. How exciting to learn there were 50
entrants in a category and you won first place.
Contest wins also help balance those rejections.
I frame my winning certificates and hang them on the wall in front of my
computer. When I'm down or frustrated with rejection, I look over the awards and
get a boost to my self-confidence.
Every writer craves assurance and approval of
their work. A contest win or encouraging word from a judge has kept me
submitting a manuscript that I might otherwise stuff in a file and give up
trying to sell.
Now that you know why to enter, there are ways
to push your chances of winning a little higher.
What do judges look for in a winning contest
Often, the same thing an editor looks for in a
In one annual contest, the first year I heard
about it was two weeks before the entries were due. I hurriedly printed out my
entries. None of them placed at all. Editorial comments made by the judges all
said the same thing, that the pieces were good and well-written, but there were
too many misspelled words, the ribbon or photocopies were too light, and on one
entry I forgot to remove my name on the manuscript. The following year, I
prepared early for this contest. I entered five categories and won three first
places. The next year I entered four and won two first places and a
As a judge, I've seen plagiarized entries, or
manuscripts that were sloppy with typos, strange margins, a light ribbon or dot
matrix printer, single spacing, etc. These were placed in a separate pile for
judging. Although I tried not to be too picky, I knew I wasn't doing the writers
a favor by not letting them know the errors that would shout AMATEUR! to an
If the story is well-done, they are then
'considered' for winning. Other stories had no point, they rambled on without a
plot or believable character. As essays they might have worked. But not as
fiction. Some had limited marketing ability.
As I mentioned before, carefully digest the
comments of the judges. If possible after the contest find out who the judges
were and their background.
Some writers have complained about unnecessarily
harsh or overly critical critiques. It does happen occasionally. Contest
chairman should be notified of this. A good judge will point out positive points
as well as flaws, without devastating the writer. It is true we must be
realistic, but many a new writer has been devastated by such critiques.
Judges are human. Many are multi-published
writers who are happy to give helpful critiques and words of encouragement.
Others have accepted the job for a promise of pay or free entrance into a
conference. Either way, it is subjective. Don't let a loss or tough critique
ruin or slow your career. As with an editors rejection, consider it, rework
areas where you agree or see the suggestions help, and move on.
Here are 3 ways to help your entrant have a
chance of winning.
1. The mechanics are the best they can be.
Don't lose a contest because of a sloppy manuscript. You might lose an
editor's attention or belief in you as a professional if they receive a
2. Is it truly a short story, essay, article,
poem, etc? Don't try to change a couple of words here and there and force a
nonfiction piece into fiction, cut down a 3000 word nonfiction piece to 1000
words for an essay and forget to state your theme, or place chapter breaks in
a long, long short story and dash off a quickie synopsis to enter it as a
3. Have you followed the rules for that
particular contest? That alone can cause a manuscript to be disqualified. Word
count, leaving the name off an entry, sending in a fee, or narrow margins can
cause a manuscript to not even be read by the judge.
One last thing. After winning a contest or if
you've received a particularly helpful critique from a judge, it's never a bad
idea to write and thank them. Networking is always important. Some judges may be
editors of magazines, published authors who know editors, etc. Many times a
judge receives little remuneration for their time. A note of thanks and
appreciation is good writing etiquette.
Are you excited? Find a contest by checking
writer magazines online and off or getting in touch with your local writers
group. Prepare your manuscript as if an editor were reading it. Send it in.
Then, rejoice over your wins and learn from your losses.
© Copyright 2001, Kathryn Lay
Kathryn Lay is the author of 26 books for children, over 2000 articles, essays and stories for children and adults and the book from AWOC.COM Publishing, The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer. Check out her website at www.kathrynlay.com and email through email@example.com
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