Ten tips on how to win a writing contest

With all of the competitions lately, and the upcoming #PitchWars run by the fantastic Brenda Drake (seriously, if you don’t know who this woman is, what are you even doing on the Internet?!), it’s time again for writers to hone their pitches, polish their queries, and prepare their manuscripts.  There’s only one problem.  Writer Self-Doubt.

Yup, that’s right.  Whenever a competition comes along, writers get hammered with self-doubt.  It’s much like the query process, only sometimes it can be tougher as it has that “competitive” feel.  So how, exactly, do you go about winning a writing competition?  Well, although there is no sure fire formula (good writing trumps all, as they say), there are a few things you can do to really boost your chances.  Check out the ten tips on how to win a writing contest below:

1)  Take a deep breath and read over the competition rules slowly.  You’d be surprised at how many people rush and forget to go over the rules, and then send three extra emails saying “oops, sorry I forgot to say/include/etc”.  Professionalism helps.  A lot.

2)  Look through the previous winning entries of the contest.  No, really.  Too many writers are too lazy to do this.  But you need to.  Really, you do.  These entries were picked for a reason.  Dissect them.  Look at their strengths.  Maybe it’s form, technical structure, concept, voice.  Whatever it is, find it.  Find out how it works, then use it to your advantage.

3)  Read the book blurbs on the back of your favourite books.  This is called a pitch.  You need to know how to do this.  Don’t just try to make up your own.  See how it’s really done.  Again, a lot of writers try to make a pitch without ever looking at a real book blurb.  Don”t do this.  It won’t help.  Get your butt out your chair and read some real life book blurbs.

4)  Learn the difference between an ACTIVE scene and an ACTION scene.  You want to have an active scene.  Yes, you can have action, but it isn’t compulsory.  Even action scenes can lack forward momentum.  A lot of good books by new writers have bad beginnings.  Make sure yours isn’t one of them.  Again, read real books that you like to find out HOW they start.  It’s not all guns and explosions, you know.

5)  Check over your entries before you send them for spelling and grammar mistakes.  Take your TIME.  Slow down.  New writers are in too much of a hurry.  Publishing is a looooong process, so rein that pony in.  You need to make your copy clean, professional, and precise.

6)  The closer you can get your reader to your character, the better.  What makes readers care about characters is if they can understand them, relate, connect, or are fascinated by them.  Give your opening pages to some good critique partners solely asking for feedback on what they FEEL about your character.  Are they receiving what you think you’re putting out?  Why or why not?

7)  Be proactive.  Tweet about your entry.  Encourage others.  This second part is more important than the first.  Yes, it’s important we have your submission on our radar, but it’s more important that we see you are encouraging towards the writing community in general.  Naturally, judges like people who are nice and friendly.  No one wants to work with a bear.  Fact.

8)  Scour your manuscript for cliches, passive voice, redundant description, purple prose, and other writing demons.  Use that red pen with force.  And then…put a couple back in.  🙂  No one wants prose with no soul.  Just choose very, very wisely.

9)  Pick the right judge.  If you have a choice of who you submit to, read what they like, check out their website/blog/facebook.  Follow them on twitter.  Ask them a question.  They might answer.  Find out what kind of books they like to read.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  You might be surprised about what you find out.

10)  Don’t be in it just to win it.  Yes, it’s lovely to win.  But that’s not really the whole point.  A big part of contests is LEARNING experience.  Use it to make connections.  Agents, editors and other writers meet and connect through contests all the time.  While you might not win, you might meet some invaluable people.

So, there you have it.  Contests in a nut shell.  I hope to see you in #PitchWars this year.  Don’t forget to check out my Mentor Wish List when it comes up.

Good luck to you all.  And may the force be with you!


8 thoughts on “Ten tips on how to win a writing contest

  1. Yep, I've only mentored in one contest before this, about this time last year (Cupid's CAGI), but this one's going to be huge . . . looking forward to helping some people out and discovering some stars. 🙂


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