A few months ago, without telling anyone, I entered a short story into a writing contest. Well, not just any writing contest. It was the Winter Writing Contest that The Write Practice hosted in partnership with Short Fiction Break literary magazine. In other words, it was my writing contest.

What I Learned From Losing My Own Writing Contest

Why I Entered the Writing Contest

I entered the writing contest for four reasons:

  1. I entered to give me perspective on what the experience was like for other writers. And it worked! While the contest was an amazing experience for me, there are several things we’re changing and improving for our next one (which just opened! Here’s the link to learn about the contest theme and prizes).
  2. I had been working on a few short stories and wanted to test one of them out on an audience. What better test than a writing contest that I knew and trusted, in which I could ensure the story was read both by judges but also by other writers?
  3. As a writer I always want to be growing. I never want to assume I have arrived. The best way to grow as a writer is through feedback, and that is the distinguishing characteristic of The Write Practice’s writing contests. In fact, it’s the main reason we host them, because writing contests can be great practice and great practice requires feedback.
  4. In the midst of all of these motivations, I wanted to win. Of course I did. I even imagined the faces of the judges when I revealed that they couldn’t award the prize to the winner because the winner was me.

How I Made Sure It Was Fair

Of course, I wanted to make sure participating in the contest was both fair and free of conflicts of interest. Here’s how I did that:

First, I competed anonymously. I wasn’t a judge on this contest, so I wouldn’t be able to give myself any unfair leg up. And since I was using a pen name, no one would be able to show favoritism. I even went as far as setting up a unique email address for my pen name, just in case anyone on our team at The Write Practice saw my email address and put things together. My goal was to be completely anonymous.

Second, if I won, I would have revealed my identity and refused the prize.

There were over $3,000 in prizes for our Winter Writing Contest, but for me, the practice, feedback, and chance to experience the contest from a writer’s perspective was the main goal.

Where My Story Idea Came From

My short story idea came through our worksheet, 10 Questions to Better Story Ideas. I really love this resource, and use it all the time in my own writing. (You can get a free copy here, by the way).

Specifically, the idea came from question eight, which says, “Does your character bump into his or her soulmate?”

This question comes from the meet-cute moment, a Hollywood term that describes the moment when the hero and heroine of a love story first bump into each other. I had the idea to write a love story and center the meet-cute around the hero firing the heroine, which would be the first time the two characters met.

How I Wrote My Story

After the initial idea, the story flowed naturally. I always try to write short stories in one sitting because it’s so much harder to come back to a story when you’ve broken off in the middle of it.

I finished the story in two or three hours, re-read it, and felt like I had nailed it. I knew it was a risk because it had a happy ending.

In writing contests, the stories that win almost always have sad endings. Even though most people prefer stories that end happily ever after, the reality is stories that end in tragedy almost always carry more emotional weight. And thus, judges usually rate sad stories higher than happy stories. This isn’t always true, but it’s a general rule.

However, I was too excited about my story to worry about that. In fact, I almost forgot I was writing it under a pen name and tried to share it with my team at The Write Practice. Fortunately, I was able to hold myself back and my writing contest story was kept secret.

Peer Feedback

In The Write Practice’s writing contests, you post your story in a writer’s workshop to get feedback from other participants in the contest. This is a great opportunity to make your story better, and so when the workshop opened, I posted my story. I was expecting high praise and instant lauding of my unbelievable skills as a writer.

The feedback I actually got was not very flattering. Some people struggled understanding key sections. One person questioned the setting. Others caught spelling issues.

I was disappointed but not discouraged. I believe even if you don’t take every piece of feedback, it’s all helpful. I set about editing and rewriting my story.

My Rewrite Process

Rewriting is always the hardest part of the writing process for me. I rewrote the story three times. It was miserable. I almost gave up on the story completely. If I hadn’t had a deadline from the contest, I honestly wouldn’t have kept going and finished the story.

The night of the deadline, I still wasn’t finished. It was midnight my time, and the story was due in three hours. But finally, I discovered my writing groove. I wrote furiously for an hour-and-a-half, and finally finished my story.

I used almost all of the feedback that I got in the workshop. I completely revamped the setting of my story based on feedback, clarified sections readers had a hard time with, and fixed all those pesky spelling mistakes.

I knew it wasn’t perfect, but it was good. Maybe good enough to win? I submitted my story to the judges.

The Results of the Writing Contest

Waiting for the results was surprisingly difficult. I, of course, would have been able to monitor the entire judging process, but I resisted the urge to see where my story was ranking with the judges. When the announcement went out about the winners, I had no idea if my story had been chosen as a winner or not. I opened the email nervously, and found out…

I had lost. I had lost my own writing contest.

All the usual feelings came through: disappointment, frustration with the judges, indignation, and a twinge of shame. I’ve been rejected enough to know that while all of these feelings are understandable, they’re not helpful. The only feeling that is helpful is a desire to learn and grow as a writer. Which is why I was so excited to see the feedback the judges had left for me.

Judges’ Feedback

When I first signed up, I paid for the premium entry, which included feedback directly from the contest judges. I wanted to see why they felt my story wasn’t good enough to win, and what I could learn as I moved on to my next story.

When I finally received the judges’ feedback, I read through it quickly and then went back to study each point. Some of the feedback was good, some of it was arguably correct, even if I disagreed with it, and some of it may have come from a misreading of my story, which is fine and normal. One piece of feedback in particular was really surprising:

“This was one of my favorite stories,” said the judge, “only it struggled to meet the two worlds theme requirement.”

Considering I came up with the contest’s theme, I found that surprising. The main reason we have a theme at all in our writing contests is so that people are forced to write a new story, to practice their writing, and not just pick out something from their archives.

Still, the number one rule of writing contests is to follow the instructions, and I hadn’t followed them as closely as I should have.

What I Learned From the Writing Contest

This feedback,  left me disappointed, but I also knew I had to take responsibility for it:

As writers, we can’t blame our readers or editors for misunderstanding our writing. We can only write something so good it rises above misunderstanding.

Writing contests are amazing practice. That’s great, because the thing is, no matter how much experience we gain as writers, we always need more practice. I definitely do!

That’s why I’m going to keep participating in writing contests like this one. And I hope you’ll join me!

Spring Writing Contests

Our Latest Writing Contest

We’ve just announced our latest writing contest today, held in partnership with Short Fiction Break literary magazine, and sponsored by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl.

If you’ve spent much time around The Write Practice, you know we love to help writers grow. Sure, it’s rewarding to win a writing contest (and we’re offering some amazing prizes to make it exciting!).

But we believe the real value comes in the practice you get along the way. That’s why you’ll get the chance to workshop your story in the Becoming Writer community, receiving feedback to help you polish it to perfection.

Plus, you’ll even have the opportunity to get personalized feedback directly from the judges on why your story was or wasn’t chosen as the winner.

No other writing contest (that I know of) offers this kind of support.

Not only that, but EVERY writer who enters will have the option of publishing their story with Short Fiction Break. That means even if you don’t win the main prize, this contest will still be well worth your time. You’ll grow as a writer and have a published story to show for your hard work at the end.

Plus, everyone who enters will get a free copy of Shawn Coyne’s amazing book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, and Tim Grahl’s Your First 1,000 Copies. It’s a pretty amazing offer!

You can find all the details about the Spring Writing Contest here.

And who knows! Maybe you can figure out which pen name I’m competing under!

Have you participated in one of our writing contests before? What did you learn from the experience? Let me know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Start writing your entry to the Spring Writing Contest using the theme as a prompt:

Person in a Hole. A character gets into a big problem, then finds a way out of it. (See Kurt Vonnegut’s video that inspired the theme.)

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share what you have in the comments section. And if you share, give feedback to a few other writers.

Hope to see you in the contest, 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).