Entering writing competitions – six top tips

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The tips below will hopefully assist you in making the most of your chances when submitting your masterpiece to a competition. To help you actually write your masterpiece, I have written the guide: ‘An introduction to writing good flash fiction‘ available on our competition page.

1. Don’t be afraid of rejection

At its most basic level, writers write because they enjoy it, so to be rejected is always hard. We have all been rejected and to see writers stop what they love through perceived criticism is upsetting.

When not being on the winning rostrum of a competition or chosen for publication, I often compare my entry to the winner’s story, this can be disheartening in two ways. My story will either be shown as a poor contribution to the world or alternatively it may highlight the fact that my words are better than the winner’s entry, the only conclusion being that the judge must have been smoking something rather exotic when reading them.

However, remember judgements on art (which creative writing is) is very subjective, so don’t be disheartened, keep editing and recycle stories for another day, their time will come.

2. Keep a record

Once you have been submitting work for a while, you may find you have a number of rejected stories to recycle for future outlets.

It is important not to resend an already rejected story to the same place a second time without an extensive re-write. Equally it is crucial to you don’t send the same story to two (or more) different places at the same time without realising. Some outlets allow simultaneous submissions but some don’t, and if you are accepted for one, then you usually have to withdraw from the others. Personally as a writer and competition host, I prefer this not to happen.

As I write this, I have sixteen previously rejected stories without a home and seven stories entered somewhere, with five of these seven stories having been entered more than twice before to different competitions or anthologies. Keeping track is therefore very important. I use an excel spreadsheet of stories, colour coded for ‘Ready to enter’ as green, ‘Currently entered’ as orange, and ‘Won, don’t use again’ as red in the rows and the completion / anthology source as the columns.

3. Research your judge / past winners

Whenever possible take a look at the judge’s own work or their chosen past winners. There is often a type of story the judge likes, so it may be a case of simply revising one of your existing or previously rejected stories into a more acceptable format.

If given a theme to base a story on, you can also discover how tenuous you can go. Tenuous links to a theme are often appreciated but the difference between tenuous and ridiculously off topic is a fine line. In the same vein, common tropes or clichés can be boring and ensure an excellent story is rejected.

Sometimes you will also get an insight into how your story will be judged, whether it be purely subjective or have some quantitative element.

My judging of stories is primarily subjective in nature and biased towards how I emotionally connect to a story. Having said that, I do try to give a quantitative score to a qualitative feeling.

The competition I host is for stories up to 200 words with a twist. I will reject stories over 200 words or if there is no twist. Each story will be scored up to a maximum of 10 points which helps me define a short list or winner, however, if a stories twist emotionally punches me in the face like an unexpected mugging (see ‘How to write a plot twist in flash fiction’ in our PDF ‘An introduction to writing good flash fiction’), then it may well win without having to score it. However, my scoring system is:

  • Has it got a good title? — Up to 2 points
  • Does the story flow / easy to read (good spelling and grammar help with this but I don’t negatively score for spelling if it still reads well) — Up to 4 points.
  • Twist — Up to 4 points

4. Read the guidelines

Unsurprisingly this is a really important tip and covers many aspects of whichever competition you are considering. Some guidelines are called ‘rules’, ‘terms and conditions’, ‘submission details’ etc. Whatever they are called, read them all as there will be specifics on formatting, anonymisation, word count, theme, simultaneous submissions, whether previously published stories can be entered, and so on.

One of the hardest jobs in judging is to reject a fabulous story which is just over the word count. Please be careful.

5. Don’t leave submission until the last minute

Many people are naturally just on time, which is fine for the majority of submissions as stories generally aren’t considered until the deadline has passed. However, completing a story, then immediately submitting it may result in edits not being made which would be if reviewed following a period of rest.

Leaving your story for at least a week allows you to re-read it with relatively fresh eyes, as well as allowing proof-readers time to comment.

Last minute entries also don’t allow the host / publication to respond if there is an issue. For example, many submissions will be disregard if file attachments cannot be opened, yet some hosts (including myself) will respond letting the entrant resubmit a more appropriate file if given time.

6. Include a title

When possible give your story a title but ensure the word count is adhered to. Most competitions and anthologies don’t include the title in the final word count but some do, so read the rules. If the title is included in the word count it is best to sacrifice some of the word count on a good title. The creation and importance of a good title are covered in our PDF ‘An introduction to writing good flash fiction’.

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