10 Critical Mistakes Writers Make in Writing Contests

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You work hard to write your best story—and if you're honest, you're pretty sure it's amazing. You share it with other writers to get their feedback, and they agree. You work up your courage and hit the “Submit” button, sending it off to a mysterious panel of writing contest judges.

This Judge Reveals 10 Steps to Win Writing Contests

And then . . . you wait. What will the judges think? Will they agree your story deserves to win it all? Did you write the kind of story that will catch the judges' eye? What kind of story is that, anyway?

I'm going to take you behind the scenes and reveal exactly what judges are looking for when they choose the winners of writing contests.

Want to enter a writing contest, get feedback, get published (guaranteed!), and maybe even win a prize? Enter our next writing contest!

Discover upcoming writing contests »

The Bewildering Challenge of Judging a Writing Contest

In the final round of our writing contests, the judges are tasked with an almost impossible challenge: how will they decide which of a small group of excellent stories will win a prize?

For a story to have made it this far, it’s already undergone careful scrutiny by the entire panel. Every single judge has read and considered it, and enough have advocated for it so strongly that it’s moved forward to join an elite selection of stories.

We all know it has fans among the judges. We all know it has great merit. The problem is . . . so do the other ten, or fifteen, or twenty stories that were selected for the ultimate consideration.

How do the judges choose? What sets the winning story apart? And if a story that made it this far doesn’t win (and mathematically, that’s always the case), what’s the fatal flaw that knocks it out?

10 Storytelling Essentials That Wow Judges and Win Writing Contests

I’ve judged nine writing contests with The Write Practice, and I’m gearing up for my tenth. (Want in on the fun? Join our next writing contest here!) My favorite part of every contest is the discussion amongst the judges. I love hearing what they see in their top picks, what stands out about the strongest contenders.

Throughout these contests, I’ve picked up on some patterns. A handful of critical mistakes appear again and again—and in the final round, it’s these mistakes the judges consider as they make the toughest decisions.

I’ve distilled long hours of judges’ discussion into ten elements the winning stories must include. I’ve seen every single one of these essentials become the deciding factor about whether a story will take home a prize or not.

Want your story to not just make the final round, but win the whole contest? Take a careful look at these ten elements and make sure your story includes each one.

1. Get inspired by the theme.

If the contest has a theme, make sure you adhere to it. You might write a brilliant story—but if you ignore the theme, skip part of it, or in any way disobey the contest guidelines, that’s a quick way to get your story disqualified.

2. Focus on a bite-sized story.

Here’s the thing: a short story is not a novel. You can’t tell an epic fantasy tale in under 1,500 words.

Choose a story idea whose scope fits within the word count requirements. The life story of a 103-year-old might be too long, but an unexpected detour on the way home from the grocery store might be just the right length.

3. Structure your story with clarity in mind.

This goes along with step #2. Yes, you can write a short story set across two time periods with five scene changes and three point-of-view characters, and fit it all in just 1,500 words. But should you? Maybe, maybe not.

When you’re working within a tiny word count, overcomplicating your story can quickly confuse your readers. Make sure that transitions are clear, and that each new element you introduce—a new scene, a new character, a new plot twist—moves the story forward rather than cluttering it up.

It can be hard to judge what’s confusing in your own writing, so have someone read your story before you submit.

4. Hook your readers (and the judges!) with a brilliant first line.

The first sentence of your story is your chance to make an amazing first impression. A powerful, surprising, and intriguing first line will capture the judges’ interest at the start and make them look forward to reading the rest.

Writing contest judges read hundreds of stories in a short amount of time. Make sure your first line gets them excited to stumble across yours.

5. Get straight to the action.

In a 1,500 word story, you don’t have space to write long passages of world building or pages of backstory. And the truth is, that’s not the interesting part anyway.

Don’t open the story with three paragraphs setting the scene. Instead, start your story at the moment when “normal” ends.

What’s the first sign of trouble? The first indication that something will be different about today? The inciting incident that kicks off the action? Skip the descriptive introduction and start your story there.

6. Give your character a goal.

“Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” —Kurt Vonnegut

Everyone wants something. It might be as small as another hour of sleep or as profound as one more day with their terminally ill grandfather.

Whatever it is, their want—and the things they do to get it—drive the story.

Make sure your character has a goal they're pursuing. Stories about characters without goals ramble on, leaving readers confused about why they're reading at all. Stories about characters who have clear goals and make decisions to pursue them keep us hooked, turning the pages to see what happens next.

Pro tip: everyone needs something, too. Sometimes what they want and what they need aren't the same thing. If your character achieves their goal, will that actually make them happy? Or will they have to deal with some unwanted consequences?

7. Cut excess words so you can focus on the story.

Are you 500 words over the limit and stumped about what to cut? Look for:

Backstory. Yes, you need to know everything about your character—but your readers don’t. It’s tempting to include every detail of their history that led them to this moment, but that will actually slow down your story and burden readers with unnecessary information. Get it all out on the page in the first draft. Then, as you edit, challenge yourself to cut as much backstory as possible. Pro tip: if there’s an important piece of information readers (and characters) need to know, use it as a surprising revelation to fuel the plot.

Florid description. Does a detail move the story forward? Does it show us something about the character or the plot that we need to know? If so, great! If not, cut it. Unless your story is about rogue painters vandalizing the neighborhood waste collection route, we don’t need to know what color your character’s trash cans are.

Adverbs. Cut them ruthlessly. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” writes Stephen King, and that’s especially true when you’re limited to just 1,500 words. While you’re at it, cut these seven words, too. Save your space for words that will move the plot forward, not weigh the reader down with clunky prose.

(Did you catch all the adverbs I used in that paragraph? Ouch. We all fall short of editorial perfection.)

8. Make your characters choose.

This is the crux of the story, the crucial moment to focus on. At some point in the story, your character must make a decision.

Throughout the story, the tension is building. The plot is thickening, the stakes are rising, and the risks are becoming greater and greater.

As the story approaches the climax, bring your character to a critical dilemma where they must choose how they’re going to respond.

If your character limps along without making a choice, or if they let the people around them choose for them, the story will feel dissatisfying and incomplete.

But as they choose something and then face the consequences of their decision, we’ll be riveted, wondering, how will they handle what happens next?

9. Make sure something changes.

That moment of crisis, the decision your character makes, has consequences. Maybe they took a risk and it paid off—or maybe they crash and burn. Whatever the case, something must be different as a result of their choice.

Remember, stories are about change. If your character finishes the story in the same place they began, you’ll leave readers wondering why they bothered to read it in the first place.

Make sure the trials your character experiences and the decisions they make leave someone or something irreversibly changed by the end of the story.

On that note, beware of writing a story where the main plot is a dream sequence. Unless the waking world is somehow different as a result of the dream, it feels disingenuous. Any change in the dream world is erased when the character wakes up. Why read a story where nothing changes?

And yes, this applies to daydreams, too. Make sure the story isn’t all in the character’s head.

10. Nail the ending.

The first 1,450 words of your 1,500-word story are riveting. You don’t have a ton of space to wrap it up, but surely if you just tack on some kind of closing, it’ll be fine, right?

Wrong.

It’s very, very hard to write the perfect ending to a short story, the conclusion that will tie up the loose ends neatly but not too neatly, leaving the story feeling resolved and also a bit mysterious. The judges know this.

They’re still looking for the perfect ending.

What does this story need in order to reach closure? What will resolve the conflict? What will allow us to walk away satisfied that we’ve truly reached “The End”?

Remember, a short story is complete in and of itself. It’s not the first chapter of a novel, or a teaser into something larger. Make sure your story stands alone, and that when it ends, this tiny glimpse into your character’s life is truly done.

An otherwise excellent story that fails to nail the ending won’t take the top spot. But a surprising but inevitable climax that leads to a satisfying resolution will amaze the judges and make your story a strong contender to win it all.

Take the time to get your ending right.

Two More Notes About These “Essentials”

I’ve looked at all these elements from the perspective of a writing contest judge—what does our panel look for when we’re challenged to select a handful of winners from an abundance of engaging stories?

But there are two more ways you can read this list.

1. Feedback from the judges. One of the things that makes our writing contests special is the opportunity to get feedback directly from the judges on why your story did or didn’t win. I’ll let you in on a secret: 85 percent of the feedback judges write relates back to these ten elements. If you can master this list, they’ll find it a real challenge to give you any critical feedback.

(Want specific feedback on how your story did or didn’t fulfill these ten essentials? Join one of our writing contests and sign up for feedback from the judges!)

2. The secrets of great storytelling. A list like this can feel contrived: “Oh, you mean if I just sprinkle these ten arbitrary things into my story, it’ll be twisted so the judges like it?” But here’s the thing: the judges want to see these elements because they are fundamental skills of great storytelling. You don’t need a writing contest to apply them—master these skills, and you’ll become a better storyteller for any story.

The best way to master these storytelling fundamentals is by entering a writing contest. Plus, you might win a prize! Ready to enter?

Join our next contest »

Which of these essentials do you find the most challenging? Let us know in the comments!

PRACTICE

For the next fifteen minutes, draft a story based on our last contest theme: haunted. Focus on essentials four and five: hook your readers with a great opening line, and get straight to the action.

When you’re done, share your story the practice box below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Enter your practice here:

Alice Sudlow is the Editor-in-Chief of The Write Practice and a Story Grid certified developmental editor. Her specialty is in crafting transformative character arcs in young adult novels. She also has a keen eye for comma splices, misplaced hyphens, and well-turned sentences, and is known for her eagle-eyed copywriter skills. Get her free guide to how to edit your novel at alicesudlow.com.

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11 Comments

  1. Gary G Little

    Understand this. Never, ever, mess with my family. If you do, I will hunt you down, rip your head off, and shit down your chest cavity,

    I found him, fleeing the township of Joshua, looking for an exit to the Habitat. I followed, whispering in his ear. Using direct audio stimulation of his aural nerves, I whispered inside his eardrums so loud I caused him pain. I did not show mercy, and I did not stop. I echoed his sins against my family, against my home. I detailed every rape and murder his men had committed. I detailed every rape and murder he had committed.

    I herded him, closed hatches, opened others, until I had him in the loading base of the aft linear accelerator. I whisper-screamed his sins as I gave him a light show; his Stairway to Heaven. I gently pulsed the accelerator coils of the accelerator to get his ass moving aft. He drifted to the center of the accelerator, begging for mercy, praying for mercy from that sick crap he called God.

    I changed the light show. His Stairway to Heaven morphed into his Gates of Hell. A yawning maw of flame and pain opened wide for Saul Oswald. “NO! NO! NO!” he screamed as I pulsed the accelerator and threw him away from my ship and into the blackness and cold of space.

    Reply
    • Siska

      Great opening and ending, and right into actions in between. You followed through all the advice.

      Reply
  2. David H. Safford

    This is the post we need, and the post we deserve. Thank you, Alice, for this diamond of writing advice for our community!!!

    Reply
  3. PappaMurf

    Excellent advice. Thank you, Ms. Sudlow.

    Reply
  4. Azure Darkness Yugi

    Grabbing her empty sleeve felt odd for Summer. “It feels like I still have my arm.” she said clenching the sleeve in both frustration and anger. Frustration by how long they’re taking in fixing her robotic arm. They said it will take fifteen minutes, but it feels like an hour to Summer. Every second that passes, makers her think to “that day”. Her eyes went to the katana that lay on the table in front of her. Then to her missing arm “I did what I had to do to survive. I’m the master of my own fate.”

    Reply
  5. EndlessExposition

    I’m not planning to enter the winter writing context, but this is a short story that I wrote over the summer that I’m rather proud of. I still don’t have a title for it, so suggestions would be appreciated!

    There had been no rain for months, and the crops were brown and dying in the field. The Donovans’ kitchen window overlooked the carnage, and Mary was forced to survey it every morning while she cooked her husband’s breakfast. “The Parsons are moving,” she said over her shoulder.

    Her husband Isaac swallowed his mouthful of coffee. “Where to?”

    “California.”

    “Why?”

    “Why not? There’s good work in California.”

    “There’s good work here.”

    “Not so’s you’d notice these days.” Mary scraped the eggs from the skillet onto Isaac’s plate. Two eggs, two sausages, and a fried tomato, every day. Isaac was a man who liked his routine. She put the plate in front of him and took the chair adjacent.

    Isaac picked up his knife and fork and diced his sausage into even pieces. “The rain will come. Always does.”

    Mary toyed with the hem of her apron. It was well past threadbare. “The Parsons are going to Los Angeles. Jim is gonna be a photographer.”

    Isaac chuckled. “Photographer? Man’s never touched a camera in his life.”

    “He wants to learn. Beth is so excited. She’s gonna take little Georgie swimming in the ocean.”

    Isaac clucked his tongue. “Always said that woman had exotic ideas. Hope this photography notion of Jim’s will support her.”

    “The ocean don’t cost nothing.” Mary laid her hand on Isaac’s arm as he lanced a bit of egg. “Can you imagine what it would be like, to swim in the ocean? Going all the way out to the deep with nothing but the sun over you and more water ahead?”

    Isaac patted her hand. “I know. Gives me the willies too, just thinking about it.” He pushed back from the table and Mary’s hand slipped from his arm. “I’m going into town. Fred Anderson’s made me an offer for the car. Should give us enough to get by till the weather turns.”

    He took his jacket and hat down from the peg on the wall and put them on. He opened the front door and for a moment the light seemed to catch him, and hold him there, frozen in amber. Mary started to her feet, her hand shooting out to grab at nothing. “Isaac –”

    He turned. “The rain will come, Mary. Always does.”

    He may have smiled at her, but the glare of the sun made his face indistinct. “I know,” she said.
    The door closed. Mary’s arm wilted down to her side. She felt like she ought to wait, stand there a moment longer, pretend to weigh her options. But she was already moving – undeniably decisive movements, though her mind was quiet. She shut the curtains on the kitchen window, blocking out the field. She went to the bedroom, and pulled her suitcase from the closet.

    Reply
    • Lyn Blair

      I posted my answer to you in the wrong spot.

      You could name your story “The Rain Will Come.” I thought the ending was perfect, as subtle as the unspoken words in the unraveling marriage. You got the feeling that no matter what she said he’d answer as though he never heard her, which he never did, and reassure her that the rain would come. I loved it.

      Reply
  6. Lyn Blair

    You could name your story “The Rain Will Come.” I thought the ending was perfect, as subtle as the unspoken words in the unraveling marriage. I loved it.

    Reply
  7. Jason

    OK. here goes. It’s currently simply titled “Thirty Minutes”.

    “No! No! It can’t be happening. It’s too soon!” exclaimed volcanologist Doctor David Narelle.

    “Readings all checkout. It’s happening. It’s going to blow!” replied his intern assistant, Andrew.

    “How long?”

    “Best estimate – thirty minutes.”

    The color drained from David’s face.

    “We gotta go. Now!” He gathered his coat and keys and left the building.

    Andrew didn’t argue. Disconnecting the laptop he was using, he followed the Doctor out the front door.

    Ash had been falling all day, but it was coming down particularly heavy now. Andrew looked up at the mountain they had been monitoring. A thick column of smoke was rising form the crater. “It’s going to blow alright”, he thought. “Let’s hope we’re underestimating how much time we’ve got.”

    They reached the All Wheel Drive vehicle they were renting. Andrew brushed the ash off the windscreen as David swung behind the wheel.

    He turned the key and the started turned over. However, the engine failed to start.

    “Come on! Come on!” David muttered.

    “Twenty seventeen minutes.” Andrew informed as he settled into the passenger seat.

    The engine finally started. David put the car into gear and drove off.

    They slid as much as drove down the slope to the valley floor, the ash adding a extra hazard to their escape. “Which way?” David asked upon reaching the main road.

    Andrew consulted a map. “There’s a bridge about half a mile to the left. The road on the other side connects straight to the interstate.” he checked his phone clock. “Twenty four minutes.”

    David turned right and drove towards the bridge. Upon reaching the bridge they both looked at the half dismantled structure with a large “BRIDGE CLOSED” sign in front of it.

    David swore under his breath. “Can we cross the water?”

    “It’s too deep.”

    “What’s plan B?”

    Andrew looked at the map again. “We need to go back and cut through the town. We can join the interstate on the other side.”

    David turned the car around and started heading back.

    “Twenty one minutes.”

    “How big is the P.F. expected to be?” David asked.

    Andrew looked at the laptop, open in his lap. “According to the model it should reach at least twenty kilometers. Do you think we can make it?”

    “Only one way to find out.”

    “Twenty minutes.”

    Upon reaching the town outskirts, they were able to pick up the pace a little now they were on asphalt. Fortunately, the townsfolk had been evacuated so the only people in danger were to two scientists. As a bonus, it meant that they had no traffic to contend with.

    “Dave, look.” Andrew pointed.

    David looked where Andrew was pointing. On the other side of a playing field was two people running towards them. They were waving to them, trying to get their attention.

    “Fifteen minutes.” Andrew reported.

    David drove the car for a few tens of yards, then abruptly turned and drove across the field to the stranded couple.

    He wound down the window as he drove up next to them. “Get in!” he yelled.

    The two didn’t hesitate. They climbed into the rear seat and strapped themselves in. David drove off.

    “Thanks.” replied the woman. “Thought you were going to leave us for a second.”

    “I’m Andrew, this is Dave.”

    “Kate. He’s Bill.”

    Bill waved. “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why are you still here?”

    “We’re volcanologists monitoring the mountain. We thought we still had more time. You?”

    “Same thing. We left it to the last minute. Then the car broke down. No one else around to give us a lift, so we tied to make it on foot.”

    “Nine minutes.” Andrew stated.

    “Err.. nine minutes to what?”

    “Nine minutes till the mountain blows.”

    “Hang on, I thought you mistimed it?”

    “Our model only predicts when it is very close to the event … It’s still being developed.”

    They managed to get to the interstate, and David picked up as much speed as he could.

    “How long?”

    “Four minutes”

    They continued down the highway, crossing the river they tried to cross earlier.

    “Aren’t we far enough away yet?” Kate asked

    “Not for the pyroclastic flow.”

    “Pyro what?”

    “Pyroclastic flow. A Giant cloud of super hot air and ash that travels up to seven hundred kilometers per hour and will cook us alive if it catches us.”

    “That’s … informative.”

    Andrew turned to David. “One min-”

    He was interrupted by a loud explosion that shook the car. The passengers looked back at the mountain. The summit was entirely covered in an expanding cloud of ash.

    “Here it comes. We’re still too close. You gotta go faster.”

    “How deep is that river under the bridge?” David asked.

    “Fifteen … twenty feet maybe.” Kate responded.

    David looked into the rear view mirror, gaging the scene behind them. He then pulled on the steering wheel, causing the car to turn sharply. It tilted dangerously as it’s momentum tried to keep it going straight. It righted again once the U turn was complete. David pressed the accelerator to the floor and they raced back they way they came.

    “What are you doing?” Andrew asked. He looked ahead at the advancing wave of ash. “Are you crazy? You don’t play chicken with a pyroclastic flow!”

    David didn’t reply. He pressed even harder down on the gas pedal and willed the car to go faster.

    “It will be on us in seconds!”

    They reached the bridge. At halfway across, David pulled on the steering again. The car swerved. It smashed the railing, and flew through he air. All three passenger screamed. With a giant splash, they hit the water, their momentum pushing them down to the bottom.

    Three seconds later, the flow passed over. The surface boiled with the heat, but the people were deep enough down to escape the worst of it.

    Andrew recovered his breath. He couldn’t believe that he was still alive. A cold, wet sensation around his feet reminded him that they were not out of danger yet.

    “Ahh … Dave?”

    “We need to stay as long as we can. Then we smash the windows and swim for it.”

    Half an hour later, the four people broke the surface of the river and swam to shore. The air was still hot, and filled with ash. While they were not completely safe yet, the most serious danger had passed.

    ————————————–

    Thanks for the advice.
    Jason

    Reply
  8. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you! The pressure! The pressure!

    Reply
  9. Siska

    Thank you, Ms. Sudlow for this article. It is very timely for the writing contest.

    Reply

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