Why do people enter writing contests? Some enter to get practice. 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’re launching our new Winter Writing Contest next week with over $3,000 in prizes. As you prepare, get a free copy of our 1-page guide, 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas, 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—or lose—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 “edit,” you could substitute the phrase “judge writing contests,” because editors and writing contest judges play a similarly godlike role.

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

What fascinates humans 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.

If You Want a Little More Help…

10 Questions for Better Story IdeasWe just released a new, free guide to help you come up with better short story ideas, and thus have a better shot at winning writing contests.

You’re welcome to download the guide, for free, here:

Click here to get 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas free »

I hope you enjoy the guide, and most of all, I hope you write some really great stories.

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’re launching our new Winter Writing Contest next week with over $3,000 in prizes. As you prepare, get a free copy of our 1-page guide, 10 Questions for Better Story Ideas here »

PRACTICE

Spend fifteen minutes creating two characters with high contrast (see Tip #2). Write one paragraph describing the first character and another paragraph describing the second.

Then, post your two paragraphs in the comments section. And if you do post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Have fun and happy writing!

Joe Bunting
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).