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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 writing.

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 want.

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 publishable.

Don't let a loss get you down, but do let a win encourage you.

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 profitable.

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 entry?

Often, the same thing an editor looks for in a publishable manuscript.

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 third.

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 editor.

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 similar manuscript.

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 novel.

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 rlay15@aol.com

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