I’ve just signed up for a writing contest, and I turn on “Eye of the Tiger” as I sit down to pound out my first draft. This is it, I tell myself. This will be the story that finally wins. I light my creative candle called “Field of Dreams” and place a mug of freshly pressed coffee next to my laptop. A few finger exercises and I am ready to write the story to end all stories.

The Winning Mindset You Need for a Killer Writing Contest Entry

But what if nothing comes? Or worse, a story pours out and it’s terrible? What if I don’t win? How can I develop a winning mindset without reading an entire shelf of self-help books and further distracting myself?

3 Keys to a Winning Mindset

I’ve entered and lost more writing contests than I can count. Why keep entering? A few reasons: to challenge myself, to practice writing on deadline, to grow, and to have fun.

But for many people, writing contests are emotional roller coasters of adrenaline-fueled drafting followed by soul-crushing defeat. If I’ve described your experience, don’t worry, you aren’t alone.

How can you develop a winning mindset that evens out the highs and lows of the writing and submission process? Here are three mindset shifts to help:

1. Don’t commit to win. Commit to grow.

This sounds counterintuitive. Of course you want to win. Unfortunately, it isn’t like a sporting event where you can see the score as you go and adjust to do more.

You cannot control how your story will resonate with the judges. You can only tell the best story you are capable of telling, and if you commit to grow, the story will be better than your last. Focus on the things you can control.

Over time, growing into the writer you want to be is far more important than a short-term win.

2. Don’t expect perfection. Expect to revise and improve.

The first few times I submitted stories for critique, I didn’t expect to change much. A comma here, a phrase there. After all, I had already written it the way I wanted. What more could I do? Turns out, my first drafts are never as clear as I think they are.

I remember the first time an editor said, “Consider pulling this apart and restructuring, beginning with [incident I had in the middle].” I panicked. But when I took a deep breath and tried it? The story became far stronger than I could have imagined.

When others read your story, ask them to tell it back to you, and then listen. Sometimes their retelling reveals the holes or questions that will make or break your story.

3. Don’t view submission as the end of the journey. View it as a quick pit stop.

The first few writing contests I entered, I poured time and energy into my submission, and once I hit that “submit” button, I often didn’t write the rest of the week (or month).

Everything changed when I stopped writing from contest to contest or submission to submission, and I began writing daily. Now, I’m working to produce one small story at a time that eventually becomes a satisfying body of work and resonates with readers. As soon as you hit submit, start a new story.

Be Bold and Enter a Writing Contest

Writing contests are a terrific way to practice writing with a set audience and purpose in mind. Use these tips to help you navigate your next submission, and to invest in long-term growth as a writer.

What part of your current mindset is holding you back? How can you change it? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Your mindset affects everything, whether you’re entering a writing contest or shopping at the grocery store. Take fifteen minutes to write a scene where two characters with radically different mindsets interact about the same event. Some sample events:

Two hikers find a dead coyote (or other animal) on the trail.

A mother (or father) and child see a box of cereal at the grocery store.

Two sisters prepare for a hurricane.

When you’re done, share your writing practice in the comments, and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Sue Weems
Sue Weems
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.