“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

How To Win a Writing Contest

Why do people enter writing contests? Some enter to get practice submitting. Others enter to motivate themselves to finish their stories.

But there’s one thing nearly everyone who enters a writing contest wants…

To win.

How to Win a Writing Contest

Want to win a writing contest? We host new writing contests several times a year. Click to learn more about upcoming writing contests here.

As the editor of The Write Practice, I’ve helped judge about a dozen writing contests, and during that time, I’ve learned what makes a winning submission and what will ruin your chances.

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to win a writing contest.

How NOT to Win a Writing Contest

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.

Submitting a proofed, grammatically correct entry in the requested genre that follows the contest’s theme and meets the required word count is just the minimum requirement if you want to win a writing contest.

If you want to lose a writing contest, though, do any or all of the following:

  • Don’t proofread. Do I really need to tell you to proofread? Personally, I’m fairly lenient when it comes to typos. If the piece is excellent but has two or three mistakes, I recognize that there is time to fix them before we publish the story. However, not all judges are so understanding, and it goes without saying that you need to closely proofread your writing before submitting to a writing contest.
  • Knowingly or unknowingly break grammar rules. If you want to win, observe proper grammar. Again, I don’t really need to tell you this, do I?
  • Write 1,000 words more than the word count limit. You will not win a writing contest if you submit a 2,500 word story to a writing contest asking for pieces 1,500 words or less. Just don’t do it.
  • Submit a literary masterpiece to a supernatural romance contest. Yes, that’s a recipe for failure. Writing contests generally lean toward certain genres. If the genre is not explicitly stated, read previously published stories from the contest to get a sense of what the judges will be looking for.
  • If there is a theme, ignore it. Writing contests often ask for pieces that fit a certain theme or even follow a prompt. A good way to lose a writing contest is to ignore these requirements and write whatever you feel like.

These are obvious, right? I would like to believe that they are, but I’ve judged enough writing contests to know that many people don’t seem to understand these tips.

Of course, if you’re reading this post, I’m sure you’re smart enough to know these already, so let’s get to the important tips, shall we?

Remember, these are just the base requirements. Following them will only ensure that your piece is considered, not chosen as the winner. Actually winning a writing contest is much more difficult.

 5 Tips to Win a Writing Contest

How do you win a writing contest? Here are five tips:

1. First, recognize you are human

This may be a strange way to begin a list of tips on how to win a writing contest, but let me explain.

Stephen King once said, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” But instead of the word “editing,” you could substitute the phrase “judge writing contests,” because editors and writing contest judges play a similarly godlike role. (Although, you might say writing contest judges are more like fallen angels than little gods).

To Write Is Human, To Edit Is Divine Stephen King

Why is one excellent story chosen over another excellent story? Who knows?! Even the judge may not know, at least not objectively (although, they will always have great reasons).

To scrutinize the actions of the judges of a writing contest is impossible.

All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or what the judge ate for lunch that day.

What is the writer to do then? Submit your piece, pray it wins, and then go write your next story (and find a new contest to submit to). Nothing else can be done.

I know that’s not a very good tip. If you need more advice than this, continue reading.

2. Your main character must be fascinating

And what fascinates us the most is contrast.

Light vs. Darkness. Good vs. evil. A good hero battling the evil in the world. A normal person battling the evil inside themselves. An evil person drawn, despite themselves, to a moment of goodness.

Life vs. death. A woman’s struggle against cancer, against a villain that wants to kill her, against the deathly banality of modern life.

Male vs. female.

Neat vs. messy.

Contrast is fascinating. Does your main character have contrast? If you want to win a writing contest, he or she should.

3. Surprise endings

I love surprise endings. All judges do. However, I hate out of the blue endings.

A good surprise ending can be predicted from the very beginning, but the author skillfully distracts you so that you never expect it (the traditional method of distracting the reader is to use red herrings).

Red Herring

A bad surprise ending cannot be predicted, and feels like the writer is simply trying to give the reader something they would never expect. This is lazy.

Please surprise me. Please don’t make up the most shocking ending without providing the clues to this ending earlier in the story.

4. Repeat with a twist

In the last few lines of your story, repeat something from earlier in the story with a twist. This echoed ending will reverberate with your reader giving closure and emotional power.

For example, you might repeat the opening image. If the snow is falling in the first lines of the story, you might say, “As night closed, the snow continued to fall. He thought it would fall for all his life.”

You might repeat an action. If your character is eating at a diner with his wife in the first scene, perhaps in the last scene he is eating alone at the same diner all alone.

You might repeat a character. If your heroine has a meet-cute with an attractive man early in the story, you can end the story with him unexpectedly showing up at her workplace.

Repeating with a twist gives your ending an artful sense of unity. It’s also really fun!

5. Write what you know (even if what you know never happened)

In one writing contest, I read a story written by a Brazilian writer about American kids driving around, eating hamburgers, and going to prep school.

“Write what you know,” I wrote to her over email. “I’m sure there are fascinating stories where you live. But don’t regurgitate stories you see on American television. You will never know that world as deeply as you know your own.”

On the other hand, Ursula Le Guin said this about the advice to write what you know:

I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.

How to (Really) Win a Writing Contest

There is, of course, no guaranteed way to win a writing contest. All you can do is write your best piece, follow the rules of the contest, and submit. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

All that’s to say, don’t over think this.

More Writing Contest Resources

Want more tips? Here are a few good resources:

Have you ever entered a writing contest? How did it go? Let us know in the comments section.

Want to win a writing contest? We host new writing contests several times a year. Click to learn more about upcoming writing contests here.


For today’s practice, enter a writing contest. ANY writing contest. Then, let us know you entered here in the comments section.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Marie

    I haven’t entered many contests before but am trying for the flavor of the month contest on unigo. I am stuck with finding a unique and captivating story idea because it has to be under 250 words.

  • Gary G Little

    To win? Yes that is a goal. However, more than that I would absolutely love feedback from the judges. That was one thing that as a swim referree I ALWAYS had to do. If I disqualified a swimmers race, I absolutely had to talk to the swimmer and explain why I called what I called.

    I miss that here. I get great feedback from the group, but I would love to hear why my story fell in the place it fell. It’s ok, if it lost the toin coss … uh … coin toss. That means it was close and the next time it might be me. However, if I have a writing habit that will always get my story tossed in the round file, I want to know that, even more so.

    I do appreciate always getting published, but I’d love to see the judges crib notes on my submittals.

  • houda

    thank you so much I just got an idea how to end my story while reading this. concerning writing contest to be honest I never did the how to loose rules but didn’t do the how to win either so I need to work on that. thank you again

  • George McNeese

    I’ve never entered a writing contest. One reason is that I haven’t really researched writing contests. I assume that most contests are not in my genre like sci-fi or horror. I guess that’s what make them “Creative Writing” contests. The overlying reason, however, is fear of rejection, and I’ve never submitted anything. When I read literary magazines, I get so envious o what others write, I doubt myself as a writer. I get everyone has their own style and voice. I guess I’m not confident in myself to enter a contest.

    • I can relate to everything you’re saying here. I entered the Becoming Writer contest (associated with this blog) because the email came to my inbox and it includes 6 weeks access to the critique group forum. (I promise I’m getting no kickback for plugging their contest.)

      I haven’t submitted my story yet. They’re not due until the 20th, and we get to workshop them first. I’ll be posting it for feedback today. We’ll see how it goes.

  • AnnM

    I’ve never entered a competition before, until the short story one you have going now. I’ve written for myself all along though and only in the last year or so have thought of publishing.
    I love the fact that we can all have critique and be published, no matter who wins. I have no allusions as to winning though, as you say, writing is very subjective so you never know. Not all subject matter is everyone’s ‘cup of tea’

    Thanks for all the tips…. Though I’ve written my short story and put it on the site and can’t see any major changes I will make. Next time…….

  • The United Authors Association has one going this summer. Any genre. Prizes totaling $500. Visit http://www.TheUAA.ORG if you are interested.

  • I’m doing the Becoming Writer contest largely because I got the email in my inbox. And because it includes 6 weeks access to the critique group forum.
    I’m more interested in trying out the community, but the contest will be fun too.

  • Kenneth M. Harris

    What’s interesting to me is that I have just signed up for entering this contest. I had mentioned to Joe that I’m so so scared and I am. But, I believe that it’s normal to be scared sometimes and admit this. As long as you confront the fear. At my age, I’ll always remember what Roosevelt said. The only fear that you have is fear itself. KEN Thanks again, JOE

    • Honestly, I get scared about this kind of thing all the time. The fear tells me it’s important.

    • froth9

      The fear is the reason to write even more.Love the quote,it inspires me too!!

  • Cynthia Frazier Buck

    I’ve been meaning to do another round of submissions, so this was the kick in the pants I needed! I entered a flash fiction contest run by Tethered By Letters. They had an option for 3 submissions, so I did that.

    It always makes me feel vulnerable to enter contests, or to post my writing at all. But being a member of Becoming Writer and having my own blog have helped.

    Good luck to all entering the latest BW contest!

  • froth9

    Hi..wonderful post,Joe…In fact,speaking for myself,i would not think about writing contests till now..for i have often felt that submitting my pieces of writing would halt the process of my writing projects…but every writer deserves a break–to overcome their writer’s block…For me,the deviation is these opportunities that come by my way.I have submitted my work for some anthologies and have enjoyed the process despite fruitless results.We just need to continue believing in our stories and keep writing!!!


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  • OKay, Joe, I have emailed you a time or two and I have a story to go. I had the story ready a few hours after paying the fee for the contest.

    However, I have been unable to upload to the forum or find a way to get feedback. I have not received an invite and the clock ticks. I request some assistance.

    Thank you.

  • Graham Oakman

    Practice, practice and even more practice. If you are not a wonderkid of some sort you can never expect to excel at anything without a lot of work.
    Use Help from outsources and from the friends. And start practicing!)

  • Melinda

    I’ve entered a few writing contests, and I value them the most because of what they teach you. The ones requiring a synopsis have taught me how to format a synopsis and recognize the core points of my plots, and contests with short word count limits taught me how to chop down my writing to what really matters. That’s more important to me than winning anything immediately. It definitely helps writers advance long-term, whether they win or not.

    • Writer Chick

      Ya I agree. It’s really annoying when a writing contests is so huge and there are so many people joining it, that I don’t even know if my story will get read. It would actually be nice to get feedback even if I didn’t win, ya know? But I heard from a friend about a writing contest that has limited entry. They only allow 100 people in the contest so that people have a better chance of winning and you get feedback, even if you don’t win. Do you think they’re legit?