Author and competition judge Audrey Wick shares 6 insider tips for perfecting your story entry.

For both new and seasoned writers, entering a writing contest is a great way to engage with a larger audience, to participate more fully in the literary community, and to celebrate the completeness of a piece by sharing it with others.

Of course, there’s also the thrill of a possible win!

There are a variety of writing contests available to writers at all levels, including many offered through Writer’s Digest. But after making the decision to enter, how do writers ensure the best chance at success?

(9 Tips on Writing Query Letters to Publishers and Literary Agents)

I have been a Writer’s Digest competition judge for several years. While I can’t guarantee a win, I can help writers increase their odds. I have seen trends (and pitfalls) particularly in fiction writing that have prompted the following insider tips for those entering a contest.

1. Follow guidelines.

Competitions focus on different genres, so those entering a fiction contest need to adhere to specific guidelines. Bending the rules by submitting over the word count, outside the genre, or without the accepted file type will ensure your piece does not even get read by a judge.

2. Submit in the right category.

For a fiction entry, make sure the submission includes an appropriate title, a strong opening, a narrative arc, and a true conclusion. “To be continued” endings—or ones that imply there is more to the story than what has been submitted—mark the entry as an excerpt of something longer. That will not win a short story competition, no matter how strong the writing.

3. Keep the writing tight. 

All the hallmarks of fiction writing need to be on display, but there’s no need to extend a story to the word count maximum if the plot can be written more concisely. If a contest cap is 4,000 words, stories at any length can win. So even a 1,000-word or 2,500-word story can be a strong contender, so long as the story is complete.

4. Proofread. And then proofread a different way. 

You may have read your story a dozen times, but consider a new technique, like printing out the draft, reading it aloud, or having someone else read it. A new approach can help you see illusive errors, like missing quotation marks at the end of a line or the spelling of a character as both “Derek” and “Derik.” You may also discover an error in commonly confused words and compound usage, like “everyday” as adjectival use versus “every day” as adverbial use.

5. Follow industry-standard genre conventions.

Genre contests reward entries that meet industry expectations. In fiction writing, for instance, spoken dialogue should be enclosed quotation marks; interior dialogue should be italicized. An ellipsis is used for character speech that trails off while an em dash shows speech interrupted. No underlining should be used for emphasis. When expectations such as these are displayed, the entry shines for its professionalism.

6. Do not address the judge. Ever. 

Telling a friend what inspired your writing is fine, but adding this to a contest entry is not. It may seem like a good idea to include a personal note, but don’t do it. Direct address of a judge within an entry file—whether in an attempt to be clever or to curry favor—blurs lines of professionalism. Simply let the writing speak for itself.

Writers often wrestle with the written word alone, but competitions can be a way to connect with a larger community. After all, stories can benefit others, and judges of writing contests want to celebrate success. Just make sure before you enter a contest that the entry you are choosing to submit is the best it can be. That way, it will make you and the judge smile. 

Throughout this four-week workshop, you will have feedback and support while you write and hone an entire short story from beginning to end, and you’ll leave with a polished draft of your story. You will get insider information about what editors are looking for in short stories they choose to publish.

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