When I first started entering writing contests as a freshman in high school, I was swiftly alarmed — and thoroughly humbled — by the sheer number of rejection slips I was receiving. I worried that I was simply not skilled enough to be competitive in my craft. Still, I was determined to prove myself. I kept writing.
After two whole years of what felt like endless drafting, fine-tuning and entering, I finally won my first contest. Soon followed the next win. And the next. Eventually, I was consistently ranking in contests by The New York Times, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Youth Journalism International and other competitive organizations. These recognitions are ones that have set me apart during job interviews, helped pay for my tuition and provided me with hard-earned recognition for my craft.
I don’t say this to brag (rest assured that I still face my fair share of rejections now), but rather to stress that there are surefire ways of maximizing your shot at getting a contest judge’s attention. So whether you write prose or poetry, articles or screenplays, keep reading for a foolproof guide on how to win the writing competition you have your eye on.
Think like a contest judge
For a contest judge, what distinguishes two equally good short stories from one another?
The answer is simple: whichever one fits better with the publication as a whole.
Sometimes, it’s not enough to write an excellent short story because “excellence” is determined by the publication at hand. Some contests lend heavy preference to fictional stories while others prioritize non-fiction. To make things easier for yourself, deliberately select contests that are most in tune with what you like to write. After making a list of contests you’re interested in, read the entries of past winners and discover what ties them together. Do they share a certain voice or style? Does their writing style lean toward conversational or formal? If possible, find their publication’s style guide to know which citation style and spellings to use and if there isn’t one, gauge what rules are consistent among the winning entries. If you’re especially neurotic (definitely not speaking from personal experience), try comparing the first place entries with the second place ones: is there anything notably different between the two?
Ultimately, knowing what each contest judge is actually looking for is one of the most effective ways of putting your best foot forward.
(Actually) read the guidelines
First, you want to make sure you understand the contest guidelines inside and out. This might seem self-evident, but the easiest way to score yourself a rejection in two seconds is by picking the wrong font size or entering a docx file when they specifically requested a pdf. Any explicit criteria is non-negotiable: if a contest says the word count maximum is 500 words, adhere to that. (No, bending the rules won’t make you stand out.) If a rule seems ambiguous or unclear, don’t brush it off and email the listed contact for clarification. This is especially crucial to do when it comes to a contest’s rights policy because if you do end up placing in the contest or even winning, certain companies will retain exclusive rights to your piece, thereby making it ineligible for publication elsewhere. Read the fine print and know what you’re getting into.
Know what sets you apart
It’s crucial to understand that no two writers are the same — not in worldview, not in style. Judges don’t want a regurgitation of stories they’ve already read before, so if there’s anything that sets you apart from the crowd, hone in on this.
For me, I’ve had contest judges comment on my methodical, hyper-specific approach to criticism, so now I consciously look for ways to embed this in my reviews.
What lived experience have you had that no one else can speak of? What trope can you subvert in a way that’s interesting to read?
You might be thinking, “But I thought I was supposed to give the judge exactly what they want?”
Again, think like a judge: in a pile of hundreds of entries, wouldn’t you want to come across a piece you would enjoy reading? So strike a healthy balance by making sure your writing slots in well with the overall tone of the publication while still leaving room for genuine originality. Take calculated creative risks and experiment with form. Find your real voice and not just what you think your voice should sound like. You can’t predict what other readers will want, so your best bet is to write the story you would want to read and make any alterations from there.
Revise, revise, revise
From my experience, the most effective editing method is to only edit after having had ample time to distance myself from my writing. Often, if I try to edit straight after writing, I’m too attached to see my work through an objective enough lens to make the necessary adjustments. Read your work out loud since the ear can catch mistakes that the eye alone can’t, such as pacing issues and unnatural dialogue. Another strategy I employ is reading each sentence individually from the bottom of the page to the top; this ensures that each sentence makes sense on its own.
Additionally, it never hurts to get a well-read friend or trusted professor to proofread your work and offer their unique perspective. I once FaceTimed a friend who’s a philosophy whiz for feedback on a character-driven scene I was struggling with. The second the call ended, I rewrote the entire scene because she helped me view the interaction at hand through a completely new lens.
So welcome criticism with grace and a grain of salt. Your gut feeling will often intrinsically know what’s right for the work and steer you in the right direction.
Enter in bulk — but be realistic
To maximize your chances at winning, enter as many contests as possible while still remaining practical. As university students, we only have so much time to devote to writing in our spare time between studying, work and other commitments. Not to mention that with the likelihood of entry fees, the idea of entering contest after contest is not only unrealistic but unappealing.
Luckily, I’ve learned ways to save time and money — all while maximizing entries.
To save time: re-use submissions. As a rule of thumb, enter contests that allow for simultaneous submissions, which means that writers are permitted to enter the same piece across multiple different contests (simultaneous submission policies are generally listed under contest guidelines). Having two or three high-quality pieces to enter into multiple contests is usually wiser than shopping around ten rushed, mediocre ones. Even if you try to repeatedly edit a single piece to cater to each contest, you’re still saving yourself time in the long-run.
To save money: I highly encourage students who are new to writing to test the waters with free writing contests from smaller publications. Usually this means less entries, less competition and in turn, less financial pressure as you grow your skills. However, if there’s a larger contest you’re interested in with a fee you can’t shoulder, don’t immediately be discouraged. Many quality contests like Youth Journalism International and the Adroit Prizes will happily offer fee waivers to remove barriers of entry if you provide proof of financial difficulty. And if you’re unsure, again, there’s no harm in reaching out to ask.
Keep pushing forward
No matter how seasoned of a writer you are, rejection is more or less a foregone conclusion. Once you hand in a contest entry, let it be and start writing the next piece.
Much of writing is, admittedly, subjective. Since we can’t control how other readers respond to it, the best thing we can do is nail down the technical parts and keep practicing. So grab your computer or a trusted notebook and start writing — and entering!
Writing contest lists for Canadian writers