How To Win a Writing Contest

by Joe Bunting | 33 comments

Writing contests are a great way to practice your writing skills and win prizes. Do you want to learn how to win a writing contest? 

If you enter a writing contest, there are a ton of benefits. It's a chance to practice your writing. It motivates you to write more and finish stories.

And, of course, most writing contests come with grand prize winners and prize money.

In this article, you can learn how to enter a writing contest and how to win one. Read on to learn more!

How NOT to Win a Writing Contest

Before you learn how to become a contest winner, it's worth knowing what will prevent you from winning a contest. Let's get the obvious out of the way.

Submitting a proofed entry that is free of writing errors and follows the contest guidelines is the minimum requirement you need to meet if you want to win a writing contest.

Here are some common mistakes that prevent writers from winning, entry after entry:

  • Don't proofread. Do I really need to tell you to proofread? Personally, I'm lenient when it comes to some 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. A grammatical error every once in a while won't break your story, but enough that clutters the story will.
  • 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 contest entries 1,500 words or less. Don't waste your entry fee.
  • Submit a literary fiction 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 the contest theme 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.

Now, on to the bulk of this article: how to win a writing contest.

Note: These are just the base requirements. Following them will only ensure that your piece is considered, not chosen as the winner.

How to Write a Winning Short Story Idea

How do you write a story that could win a writing contest? And how do you find a really great short story idea? In this coaching video, Joe gets coached by author Sarah Gribble, the #1 bestselling author of SURVIVING DEATH.

She helps Joe workshop his short story to turn it into what will hopefully be a winning short story. If you've ever wanted to win a writing contest, this is absolutely going to help you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBQXbNje0ec

5 Tips to Win a Writing Contest

When it comes to winning story contests, follow these five tips:

1. 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

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 a judge's experience—and luck.

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 for a creative writing competition.

This is why winning—although ideal (it comes with cash prizes or an honorable mention)—isn't the only reason you should enter a writing contest. There are other benefits like getting constructive feedback and giving yourself a time commitment that will motivate you to finish writing your story.

In a real life writing career, you have to keep writing and submitting based on the guidelines. A contest is great practice. 

2. Your main character must be fascinating

What fascinates humans the most is contrast.

Light vs. Darkness. Good vs. evil. A good character trait for a 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.

Love vs. loss.

Neat vs. messy.

Contrast fascinates readers. Does your main character have contrast? If you want to win a writing contest, they 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

Bad writing is creating a surprise ending that cannot be predicted and feels like the writer is simply trying to give the reader something they would never expect.

Instead, surprise the reader. 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 contest rules 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 Ideas

In case you're feeling stuck, we offer a 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.

As you prepare for your next writing contest, 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 Pro Practice Workshop. And if you do post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Have fun and happy writing!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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33 Comments

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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

    Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply
    • Ric

      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.

  5. 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…….

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Thanks Robert.

  6. Ric

    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.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Very cool Ric. Have fun!

  7. 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

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      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!!

  8. 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!

    Reply
  9. 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!!!

    Cheers,
    Jassie

    Reply
  10. Dash McCallen

    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.

    Reply
  11. 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!)

    Reply
  12. 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.

    Reply
    • 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?

  13. darkocean

    :/ I can never find any fantasy novel writing contests most of them are everything else and almost always for novelettes, short stories or poems. XP Except for Wattpad, that’s over now to. (Lost.)

    Reply
  14. darkocean

    I lost the Wattpad, Wattys 2016 so after eating much chocolate I’m trying to figure out why. I didn’t make any of the mistakes listed here. So, now what? Does my writing just plain suck donkey flop? *Sigh*

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I wouldn’t look at it like that. Losing definitely doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Instead, get to work on your next story (and your next contest), and use what you learned from the last to practice for the next one. It’s less about winning and losing and more about getting better as a writer.

    • darkocean

      (Try #2, fixing typos.)

      Okay I will ^;^ What also made it hard what that they also to the number of reads, comments and votes into account so I guess that had a part in it too. They said that it wouldn’t decide if a book won or not, but I’m thinking that that stuff plays a bigger part than they are letting on.Ooh well, I joined to get help with my writing and get feedback, so it’s all good.

      Yes, I want to grow and get better at this.

      I’ll just wait for next years Wattys; when it comes to contests most just want short stories. I don’t know how to do those yet. Or even worse are a scam. ;-; No thanks, I don’t need that kind of a headache.

    • darkocean

      (Try #3 fixing typos, I’m not that great at typing comments for some reason.)

      Okay, I will ^;^ What also made it hard was that they also take into account the number of reads, comments and votes a book has. Mine only had 14k reads when the ones that won have millions. X.X They said that you could still win even if you don’t have many reads and such, but I’m thinking that that stuff plays a bigger part than they are letting on. Oh well, I joined to get help with my writing and get feedback, so it’s all good.

      Yes, I want to grow and get better at this.

      I’ll just wait for next years Wattys; when it comes to contests most just want short stories. I don’t know how to do those yet. Or even worse are a scam. ;-; No thanks, I don’t need that kind of a headache.

    • darkocean

      And thanks for replying. ^^

    • Mercedes

      Ok

  15. Jason Bougger

    Agree with everything you said here. And you’re right about twists. They must be set up properly, and not just done out of the blue for shock value. I’d also like to say that your advice here is good for all submissions, not just contests. Great post!

    Reply
  16. Ricther Belmont

    Could this be anymore blatant clickbait? Claims to be about advice for winning contests, instead lists obvious do not points then says “git gud go write”

    Reply
  17. nancy

    Every time I open “Upcoming Writing Contests,” I get this message:
    “This site is not private. Someone may be trying to hack into …”
    I don’t get this message for the other 4 links, only for the list of contests. Is this happening to others?

    Reply
  18. LilianGardner

    The best advice I’ve ever had is to write what I know. I once tried to write a story pretending I lived in a town in America. I got it all wrong; descriptions of people, their clothing, dialogue, descriptions of the street, bars, diners. Everything. Then I was stuck.
    I won’t try writing about being in line at Starbucks. I’ve never been to Starbucks and don’t know a thing about it, except that they serve coffee.
    Anything that is fantasy is easier for me because I have a gift for creating fantasy, of places and happenings which no one has ever seen. I must strive to be convincing and make the story unputdownable.
    Joe, I’m at a stage where I don’t dream of being a winner. I want to participate, have somebody read my story and give feedback, and read stories members submit for the contest.
    Sorry that I’m not active on TWP as much as I’d like to be, but I have a time limit now due to health issues.
    Cheers everybody.
    Happy writing.

    Reply
  19. Lizandra Oliveira

    Not sure if I should ask this, but since I´m not an English native can I send a copy of my work to any contest?
    If so, one of my works are not done yet.

    Reply
  20. Mercedes

    I am working on a story for a while for a contest this helped a lot but can you give me a list of what they look for?

    Reply
  21. flare of hope

    this is the very first time,I’ve ever gotten the gallantry to actually press the dreaded submit button for a writing contest without the wrath of inhibition drown me in regret of what could have been ! honestly, i have never been more relieved, then i have today! thank you for the amazing pointers , they have been put into action, i hope!

    and now, i shall wait heh

    Reply

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