Fear, anticipation, and self-doubt are just a few emotions I felt during my first writing contest.
Maybe you’re in the same place now. Wondering if you have a chance among the many entrants. Uncertain if it’s worth the time and effort.
Short answer—it is.
And that holds true whether you win or lose. We’ll get into that more below.
But I also want to reveal five tips for improving your winning chances in a writing contest. See, I won the Short Fiction Break 2020 Summer Writing Contest with my story Dark Time. So the editorial staff at The Write Practice asked me to share strategies I think helped my entry.
My author career is in its infancy, so I’m speaking from limited experience. But I believe the resources and tips below will give you a better chance at snagging the next grand prize.
Want to take your chance at a grand prize and put these tips to the test? Check out our next writing contest!
Why Enter a Writing Contest?
Besides the obvious benefit of “If I win it’ll be awesome and I get prize money,” here are a few other perks I experienced.
These apply whether or not you place.
You’ll become a better writer. A short story is the perfect format to practice writing. You experience the entire process in a short time. Rough draft, revision, critiques, polishing and publishing. With longer works, that journey might take months instead of days or weeks.
You’ll pad your portfolio. Even if you don’t win, being published in a competition boosts your credibility. When you point readers, agents, or authors to your published work, they regard you as a more legitimate writer. It’s marketing for the brand of YOU.
You’ll connect with other writers. A contest gives you an excuse to comment on the work of other writers. Since you’re all in the same competition, they’ll likely respond. That’s a new connection, and potential collaborator, for your writing career.
You’ll experience BEING a writer. Entering a writing contest, producing a story, then submitting makes you feel like a writer. It’s challenging and rewarding. Short story contests are a simple way to live the writer’s life.
Five Strategies That Worked For Me
Here are some top strategies I believe helped me win the 2020 Summer Writing Contest.
1. Review Short Story Best Practices
I began by reviewing several articles on short story best practices. This is important, since it gets you planning how to tell a great story from the beginning.
Having best practices in mind as I brainstormed ideas and wrote the first draft heavily influenced the outcome.
Here are two incredible resources from The Write Practice. I referred to these articles often during my writing and revision process:
2. Use the MICE Quotient
I debated including this, because it teeters on the edge of being helpful or confusing. But I found it useful, so maybe you will too.
It’s too detailed to describe here, so I’ll just direct you to the source.
Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette—hosts on the podcast Writing Excuses—hosted a lecture on writing short stories. In it, they explain the MICE Quotient. This is a strategy to create satisfying stories by focusing on the type of conflict involved.
There’s also a formula (yes, writers—MATH), which helps estimate your final word count. Knowing that number in advance saves time and headache. Especially if the story you want to tell looks to be 5000 words, and the limit is 1500.
You can find the lecture on YouTube here.
3. Focus on Theme
The contest I entered offered few constraints. A limit of only 1500 words and a theme of isolation.
In a sea of great entries, I knew the judges would seek an exemplary take on the theme to make their final decisions.
I asked myself, how can I best get the reader to FEEL isolation? Short stories, in my opinion, are a mix between prose and poetry. Emotional impact is one of their defining features.
In my story, I attempted this by layering many levels of isolation. My character progressed from self-imposed solitude, to getting stranded alone, to potentially being the last human alive.
Ask yourself, how can you write a narrative that delivers on the theme with an emotional gut punch?
4. Spend Most of Your Time Revising
I took two mornings to plan my story, then wrote it over two more.
I spent the next week revising.
During that revision process, the story changed a lot and shrank from over 2300 words to just under 1500.
While much of the final version lived in that first draft, the heart and soul were missing. For example, revision helped clarify my protagonist’s motivations and character arc.
Here are a few specific lessons I learned along the way.
Accept the process will be messy. I often had no idea what to include, what to delete, or what to change. I moved sections around only to move them back. Revision is chaotic, and that’s okay. Giving yourself a break from your draft helps. Just an hour away can clarify story blocks. Also, try re-working sections. You may not keep the changes, but at least you’ll have something to compare the original passages against.
Listen to your gut feelings. As a new writer, I often distrust my writing sensibilities. In Dark Time, my first draft had the protagonist, lonely and confused, talking for paragraphs to his flashlight. It was cute and lighthearted. But I wanted the tone dark and tense. So although it kinda worked, I scrapped it. If you have an instinct about your story, listen to it. You’re probably right.
Do multiple polish passes. I revised Dark Time to a point it seemed “done.” Then I kept going. To my surprise, a lot changed after this point. I switched words to be more descriptive. Others I adjusted to better reflect theme and symbolism. I obliterated instances of passive voice. I also eliminated most forms of verbs like “is,” “was,” “were,” etc. So keep polishing, even after the story works.
5. Supercharge Your Draft Using Critiques
Sometimes, it’s difficult to know if a part of your story doesn’t work. After all, you understand what you’re trying to get across.
Until someone NOT you reads it, how do you know if you succeeded?
In my case, turns out I didn’t always hit the mark. Sections of my story received multiple comments expressing confusion. Obviously, something wasn’t working. So if several people get stuck on a part in your story, you’ll want to re-work it.
Critiques also help you discover which passages affect readers, and which don’t. This allows you to tweak structure and supercharge your story’s impact.
For example, I found my ending didn’t touch readers emotionally. Critiques helped me uncover why.
In the last scene, the protagonist fears never seeing his family again. Yet I hadn’t mentioned them until that point. Referring to his relatives earlier in the story fixed the issue.
Critiques may seem scary, but they’re not. The outside perspective I received from workshopping helped me win the competition. No doubt.
Where Will Your Story Take Us?
As I grow in my writing career, I’ve discovered no two authors have the exact story to tell. Your unique perspective, your voice, is what will draw readers to you.
Short story contests are an excellent way to develop that voice and share it with others. That can lead to new opportunities and new readers.
So use the tips above and get started on your next contest entry. Whether or not you take the grand prize, you’ll likely enjoy the experience and walk away a better writer.
Ready to enter a writing contest yourself? We’d love for you to join our next contest! It’s your turn to write a story, get feedback, get published, and maybe even take home the grand prize:
Have you ever won a prize for your writing? What strategies did you use to write a winning piece? Let us know in the comments.
For today’s practice, we’ll focus on Demi’s third strategy: focus on theme. Here’s the theme of the Fall Writing Contest:
Boundless. When your characters are limitless, what will they do?
First, take five minutes to brainstorm. What could boundless mean for a story, and how can you express it? Here are some questions to get you started:
- What does “boundless” mean?
- What could “boundless” mean for a person? A place? A situation? An animal? An object?
- What are some good things about “boundless”?
- What are some bad things about “boundless”?
- What does “boundless” feel like?
Then, take ten minutes to start writing a story based on the theme. You might outline your story, or write a scene.
When you’re done, share your story in the comments below. This is a great way to practice the fifth strategy, too, and improve your story with feedback. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too!