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Taking the con out of Contests
by Shaunna Privratsky

Writing competitions can be a writer's bread-and-butter. A winning entry is infinitely more saleable and adds credibility to the author. However, some contests may be a thinly disguised money-grabbing revenue maker.

Is it a legitimate competition? Consider where you found the listing. Writing for DOLLARS!, Filbert Publishing, Writer's Digest, Writer's Market, Absolute Write and Writer's Weekly, to name just a few, are exceptional sources for reputable contests.

Another clue is to weigh the entry fees against the payout. A $25 entry fee for a $50 first prize is disproportionate and makes me wonder where the extra money is going.

Take a moment to reflect why you are entering. Will you win prizes, prestige or cash? The prize monies can be quite lucrative. A well-known competition can earn you instant name-recognition or land you a publishing contract. Even a contest with books, software or other prizes can be a valuable addition to your career.

Conversely, don't get sucked into a maelstrom of entering every contest that comes across your desk. Weigh your time and energy spent against your odds of winning. Why send in your 10,000-word story of levitating lizards to a literary high-brow contests?

Give the judges what they want. If the contest has a theme, stick to it as closely as possible while still letting your voice show. Don't try to force the category to fit your writing. Your subject matter doesn't have to be a life or death situation. The skill of a writer is revealed when she can take and ordinary subject and make it sing.

Okay, you've found a contest and you're ready to write the winning entry. The most crucial clue is FOLLOWING THE RULES. Stay within word limits. Never go over, but if your story is better with fewer words, send it as is.

Follow the requested format and avoid fancy fonts, colors or unnecessary graphics. Standard settings like 12 pt. Times New Roman, double-spaced on quality paper are generally best.

E-mail submission is becoming more common, but make sure you check before you hit the Send button. If e-mail is accepted, send it in the proper format, whether as an attachment or pasted into the body of an e-mail.

Now that you are familiar with the rules and guidelines, check the deadline. It is always better to send early. The judges are eager to read each submission carefully with fresh eyes. Waiting until the last minute may mean subjecting your beloved manuscript to a quick glance from jaded eyes.

Begin brilliantly. Your title sets the tone, mood and subject of your story. Think creatively and don't be afraid to be quirky, Judges will likely be intrigued by "Sexy at Sixty", while "Look good when you hit Sixty" may leave them cold.

Emotions and feelings have a place in all masterful writing. The type of contest and your particular subject will dictate how much you add. Essays and personal memoirs are typically more revealing than a mystery story or a humor piece, but without emotion the words are just a string of facts and events.

Once you've written your manuscript, revise it. Reading aloud alone or to an audience is a superior way to catch redundancies, wrong verb tenses, passive sentences or awkward phrases. Be ruthless-the judges certainly will.

The final criteria for a winning entry is hard to define. It should leave the reader with an overwhelming need to read it again, immediately. The overall feeling should be warm, funny, moving, gripping or, as the best stories have, a mixture of all of them.

When is a losing entry still a winner? Often competitions will send detailed critiques, so you can see at a glance why your work didn't win. This can be invaluable to revise and improve a story or essay and transform it into a publishable piece.

Sometimes a magazine will offer publication to well-written pieces, even if it didn't place. This happened with my short story "Blood Relative", which received honorable mention and publication in the 2002 Troubadours' Lantern Competition.

The next time you consider entering a writing contest, consider the source, weigh your chances and follow the rules. You'll be able to avoid the "con" in writing contests and come out a winner. Good luck!

© Copyright 2003, Shaunna Privratsky

Shaunna Privratsky writes fulltime from North Dakota, in between shoveling snow. Please visit The Writer Within at http://shaunna67.tripod.com. We are looking for new writers and we are a paying market.

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