The first few writing contests that I entered, I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that my chances of winning depended on two things: 1. My technical writing skill, and 2. My creativity. When I didn’t win my first contest, I brushed it off as being a subjective art form. “My writing was good,” I thought, “but the judges just liked that story better.” While I do believe that writing is subjective, I did some research to find out what I could work on to help improve my chances of winning. Here’s what I came up with:
1. PLAN – Generate story ideas that follow along with the theme or prompt of the contest until you’ve found the one your gut can’t let go of. Then, get to know your character. Even though most writing contests only allow a low word count and you feel that you won’t get to flesh out your character within your story, YOU still need to know who they are, how they think and react, and what their purpose is. Once you’ve got your characters all figured out, plot out your story. After you’ve plotted everything out, you can finally put pen to paper or fingertips to keys (whichever you prefer).
2. FASCINATING CHARACTERS – If you look closely at every story, the main characters (whether they are protagonists or antagonists) are fascinating in some way. Cinderella had a hard-knock life when her mother passed and her evil stepmother used her as the help, but she had a fairy godmother (going with the Disney version). Harry Potter survived the attack by He-who-must-not-be-named. And Katniss Everdeen is the only volunteer that district 12 has ever known because she wanted to save her sister. See the connection? Fascinating characters have interesting/clear motivations that propel them throughout the plotline of your story.
3. TOTAL SURPRISE! – Most readers love a great surprise ending (because the alternate, a predictable ending, is less fun). And I think writers like to write surprise endings, too (at least I do). The trick is to make the ending a calculated surprise and not something that you just thought of out of the blue. In order to pull off a good surprise ending, you’ll need to leave little breadcrumb clues that hint at the surprise. When it’s done correctly, it leaves the reader going back over all of those little moments that led up to the big finale. It’s quite a beautiful experience that makes the reader want to read more from you because you titillated them. Another great tip is to repeat something you used in the beginning of your story at the end, but in a slightly different way. For example, if you begin your story with a certain phrase, you could end it with a slightly altered version of that phrase. It’s a small element that can make a large impact in your story.
4. WRITE SOMETHING NEW – I can’t stress this enough. Stop going through all your old work and trying to tweak it to somehow fit the theme/prompt of the contest. Write something new. Doing this flexes those creative writing muscles while working on old works is just more editing. Also, try to only focus on one story. I’ve seen people enter contests with multiple story ideas and they’ve never won (That’s not to say that don’t ever win. I’ve just never witnessed it). I believe that’s because while they are trying to flesh out multiple ideas, characters, worlds, plot lines, etc., others are focusing all their attention, skill, and creativity into one story.
5. EDIT/PROOFREAD – As writers, we know that no work should ever be published without editing/proofreading (though, I’ll admit, I’m guilty of doing so at times). But judges don’t just look at the overall story elements. After all, it is a WRITING contest. So, edit your story and make revisions. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story, so edit it and make sure that’s the same story you want the judges to see. Once you’re done editing/revising, PLEASE PROOFREAD! Brush up on your grammar and make sure every word is spelled correctly. This stuff can be the difference between first and last place (depending on how badly you’ve written). This is such an important step that you need to enter the contest with enough time to do so. Don’t enter last minute leaving yourself to struggle turning in a first draft.
So that’s it. Those are some tips that I’ve found to help increase your chances of winning a writing contest because let’s be honest. The only real way to win writing contests is to apply your best writing habits and techniques and write, submit, repeat. I hope these tips are helpful to you!
*Don’t forget that the deadline for submitting to the KWRILEY.COM Summer Writing Contest is July 9th, 2018.
Thanks for reading! Also, if you have any other great tips for writing growth and best practices, please share them in the comments below!