Entering writing contests with substantial prizes has become easier than ever, due in large part to Internet-based submission forms and online entry fee payment options. Winning these writing contests, however, can still be a combination of skill, luck and game psychology. According to conventional thinking, each and every submission should receive the same amount of careful consideration from the judges, but in reality the situation is a little blurrier. To paraphrase George Orwell, all writing contest entries are equal, but some are more equal than others. The challenge for entrants is to stand out from the pack.
No trick in the world can replace a quality entry in any writing contest, so your primary focus should still be on producing the best work you can and hoping for the best. These tips for improving your chances are meant to be suggestions for improvement, not to gain an unfair advantage or to exploit the judging system.
- Be sure to follow each and every submission instruction to the letter. Many qualified entries are routinely pitched because the entrant failed to follow the rules of submission. If there is a word limit, rework and revise your entry to reach it. Don't rely on a judge allowing a 750 word essay into a 500 word contest. If the contest sponsors ask for two copies of each entry, provide them. Look for other small submission details such as a SASE, code words, contact information or themes. Your chances of winning any writing contest go straight to zero if your entry is not properly formatted.
- Pay strict attention to any theme or other restrictions placed on entries. A surprising number of entrants treat the contest theme as only a jump-off point for other types of writing. Adherence to the theme is often a major judging criteria, so make sure all of your entries address the theme clearly. A writing contest is not the time to experiment with a sci-fi fantasy riff or a humor essay.
- Judges are people, too. This means that they will go through phases of excitement, boredom, frustration and relief as the judging period progresses. Sometimes a quality entry will not receive the score it deserves because it arrived along with a huge batch of mediocre or horrible entries. You obviously have no control over this, but you can control when your entries are received. Avoid the initial wave of entrants -- judges are still formulating their criteria and are more reluctant to offer high scores. Submitting at the last minute can also work against you, since judges may have reached a burn-out point. You'll have to score even higher to compete with their informal list of winning entries. Submit entries somewhere between the half-way and three-quarters mark. Judges are usually more comfortable in their judging criteria by then, which means your work will receive more attention.
- Avoid using unusual fonts, decorated envelopes or superfluous cover letters. You want your entries to be as readable as possible -- you don't know these judges personally, so don't try so hard to appear clever. Including personal information not allowed under the rules can also make you appear too desperate. Let your work speak for itself.
- Research the history of the contest and read the previous winning works. It often helps to know what a winning entry looks like, so you'll have something tangible with which to compare your own entries. Do the judges seem to prefer a certain writing style historically? What seems to motivate the sponsors in general? To improve your chances of winning a sponsored contest, it often helps to tailor your entry to match the values and philosophy of the sponsors. They're the ones who will have to live with the results of their writing contest, even after the winners have received their own recognition. If you really want to win the competition, try your best to resemble the sponsor's idea of a winner.