Monday, March 26, 2012

Writing Contest Tips

We're down to the last month before the May 1 deadline for the Pen Women Flash Fiction Contest I'm chairing (click here for more information on that). This was my first experience in chairing or running a writing contest of any sort, and this has also been my first year of entering writing contests. I've learned a lot in the last year, and I thought passing across a few pointers might be a good idea. I thought about waiting until the contest was closed, but why not pass along helpful tips before the due date to give people an edge in the last month?

I don't know about you, but I'm someone who obsessively checks the rules for anything I'm involved in. Perhaps because of this, I was surprised by how many people entered a contest without actually having read the rules, or at least not very thoroughly. My first pointer?

READ THE RULES AND GUIDELINES. All of them. Don't just read them once, read them several times. Print them up, if you're so inclined. But do be sure you've gotten an understanding of exactly what is being asked of you. Some contests may let you get away with small mistakes, while others may use that as an excuse to pare down a sizable mass of entries. There's no way for you to know which category the specific contest you're entering falls into, so play it safe.

Don't do anything to your check. Don't staple your check to your entry. Don't use double-sided tape to affix it to your entry. Don't do anything that may damage the check, which will render it unusable. If you'd like, it is fine to fold a sheet of paper around the check so that it isn't visible through the envelope, but please, please, please do not do anything to affix it to the paper! I destroyed my nails trying to carefully remove checks stapled to paper, including one stapled directly in the middle of the check.

Use manuscript format unless otherwise directed. If there is no information about the formatting, assume they want it in standard manuscript format. This is the most professional way to present your piece. You took care in writing it, so take care in presenting it. You can find excellent guidelines on standard manuscript formatting here.

Don't do anything wacky with your submission. Whether you present your piece via email or snail mail, be sure your submission is plain. In other words, no frilly email backgrounds, no funky fonts, no colored or textured paper. I know this is a work of art you've labored over, and sometimes it seems like it should be presented with a flourish, but hold yourself back! Send it on plain white paper, and see the standard manuscript format guide for font type and size information.

Be sure to proofread your entry. I haven't seen a contest judging sheet yet that doesn't take grammar, spelling, typos, etc. into consideration when figuring the score. If you enter the most mind-blowing piece, but it is riddled with typos and misspellings, you are going to lose points. Don't let that be what loses the contest for you.

Do your homework before contacting those running the contest. If you write the person running the contest to ask a question clearly addressed in the contest's guidelines, it may impact you. Some may not even respond to those questions. If the only information passed along is an email address, with no website or written guidelines, by all means contact that email address for the guidelines. But if there is a website link or a set of guidelines, always be sure to check those guidelines for the answers first. It's okay to ask questions not addressed therein.

Check and double check! For me, personally, I always go back over my piece when I have attached it to the email to send (or printed it up, if that were the case). This assures me that I've attached the correct document, and also that I've met all of the guidelines. I go down the list of requirements systematically to be sure I've gotten everything as it should be. Sometimes those requirements are murky, so I tried to be clear when I wrote up this contest's guidelines, and I provided a link to a final checklist to hopefully help those entering have the best chance to have things done correctly. Check over your formatting, proofread for grammar, spelling and typos once more, check the requirements for entry, and check payment information to be sure you've got everything down pat. It's really disappointing to miss out on a contest because some small, but important, detail was overlooked. Don't let that be your downfall.

On a final side note, a lot of these things apply for submitting your writing for publication, as well as submitting for a grant or award of some sort. I also had the opportunity to be on a committee awarding a grant this past year, and it was so deflating to have an applicant who was strong in other ways, but who did not meet the requirements as they had been laid out. It was also incredibly frustrating. Always take the time to put your best foot forward, because what you turn in is all they have to judge you on.

Do you have any tips or pointers for entering contests, whether from an entrant's point of view or a judges/contest chair's? Please share! How do you feel about contests?

May you find your Muse.


  1. never entered a contest but I promise not to do anything wacky!

  2. Sharon, the suggestions were spot on! Now, how do you convince someone like me, who never entered any contest, that this is a good thing? I'd be the frustrated one who'd miss the deadline, or the format guidelines, or even the check attachment faux-pas. Yes, entering contests would be a treacherous event for me.

  3. Alex, okay, no wackiness!

    Rosaria, for me, I just think it is a less threatening practice session for eventually submitting for publication. And practice is never a bad thing!

  4. I've entered a few. I think it's like submitting, don't give up. :)

  5. I used to enter contests years ago and I should have followed these tips. I did my best, but I missed the mark on some of these.

    Have a great week.

  6. Submit a damn good sample and synopsis, sort of like Lonely Hollow!

  7. I've never entered a contest. But I promise I will carefully read the guidelines if I ever do! :)

  8. Great tips! I always make sure to read the guidelines carefully about a dozen times. I also find that people like unusual paperclips. My small collection of paperclips that I've use have never been returned, so I have to assume they think they're just super cool!

  9. So, basically, you're saying I shouldn't just skim what you're saying here, right?
    And don't tape my check to my monitor.

  10. Great pointers... esp the part about following their instructions exactly...

  11. Medeia, it turns out there's no better way to find out what can be trouble than being on the flip side of the process!

    Julie, that is a good pointer! ;-p

    Jemi, definitely a good idea!

    Christine, how funny about the paper clips!

    Andrew, also do not staple the check to your monitor. You will regret it more ways than one. ;-p

    Tania, thanks! That part is definitely so important.

  12. I've never entered a contest before. Since the 100-word fiction piece is what I enjoy writing the most, the Pen Women Flash Fiction Contest sounds like just the kind of contest I'd be interested in. My very first piece of fiction was the 100-word challenge, and I've written hordes of drabbles (as they are called).
    Thanks for passing on this valuable info...

  13. Nothing you haven't covered - except reading the piece aloud a few times. I tend to catch things when I read aloud that I don't when I am reading to myself. Good post as always.

  14. I haven't entered contests not since college. I prefer to submit my way into the publishing world. I don't have killer writing skills anyway.
    No point in adding to the existing heartburn.
    Some are theme based and word count based and people tend to ignore both when submitting their work. I did it once.

  15. Shannon, great tips - especially the first one. I made the mistake of entering a contest on someone else's behalf but did not read the rules as they pertained to HIS portion of the contest. We found out too late that one rule had been violated and ended up getting disqualified due to a small technicality (and he was clearly in first place the whole contest). It was a sobering and embarrassing lesson to learn. I also wanted to let you know I nominated you for the "Sunshine Award". Feel free to stop by my blog to collect. Thanks for always sharing such useful info on your blog!

  16. Michelle, drabbles is the right term? Thanks for that information!

    Brenda, I definitely agree with you! I do that for anything I write. I've ceased to even feel foolish about it.

    Rek, I think your method is solid, as well. And you're right, there are some who overlook or ignore the requirements.

    Dawn, thank you for the award! How terrible about the competition! But it happens to the best of us. Hopefully he was understanding.