Contest Tip Sheet

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10 Tips for Winning Writing Contests
Poetry Tip Sheet
Writing for Children Tip Sheet
Contest Cautions

How do contest judges pick the winners?

We asked these judges  ....

(Judge #1) James Neve, The Word Hut Short Story Writing Competition;  - Judges Fiction, all genres.

(Judge #2) S. Joan Popek, Creative Writing Institute - Judges Open Genres, depending upon the contest.  Some contests are themed, some are open.

(Judge #3) Amy Harke-Moore, Burning the Midnight Oil Poetry Contest; and - Judges Poetry.

(Judge #4) Jolene Mechanic, Asheville Award; and - Judges Novels and Poetry.

(Judge #5) Mary Sayler, Writers-Editors Network Writing Competition; and - Judges Poetry and Literature for Children.

(Judge #6) Kay Harwell Fernández, Writers-Editors Network Writing Competition - Judges Short Story Fiction; Novel Excerpt; Nonfiction Feature Articles.

(Judge #7) Tag Goulet, Next Generation Indie Book Awards - Judges Nonfiction (lead nonfiction judge).

(Judge #8) Beth Kallman WernerNext Generation Indie Book Awards,,, - Judges General Fiction/Novel (under 80,000 words) and Chick Lit.

... to share their secrets. Follow the questions to discover how to improve your chances of winning these and other writing competitions —


1. Do high-ranking entries often exhibit a quality that entrants should pay extra attention to or consider as they select the stories, articles, novels or poems they'll enter?

(Judge #1) James Neve:
"The stories that stand out are those exhibiting that something extra. Something that makes me go 'Wow!' or 'I didn't see that coming.' Our stories are limited to 1000 words or less so the better ones tend to either have a twist in the last paragraph or sentence, or they build up an atmosphere that wraps itself around you and really transports you to some other place in so few words.
"Obviously, well presented and carefully checked entries are likely to do well, too. It is surprising how many people do not even use a spell checker or bother to put speech marks in correctly. If I'm reading dozens of entries, I do not want to have to proofread the story before I can understand it."

(Judge #2) S. Joan Popek: "The first thing we look at is how closely they followed the guidelines.  That includes formatting, (if any is specified) word count, topic, and, as we are a G-rated site, we always ask that the entries be in that category. My best advice to anyone entering any contest is to read the guidelines closely and follow them to the letter. We don't spend hours listing them to have them disregarded."

(Judge #3) Amy Harke-Moore: "Yes, they do. The quality I find most in the top entries is a use of language that grabs the reader from the first line to the ending of the poem. Good poetry to me has a lyrical quality to it, yet it has something the reader can take away."

(Judge #4) Jolene Mechanic: "Novels and stories need well developed characters and plots that flow with a cohesiveness. Poetry should create visual images inside the reader's head."

(Judge #5) Mary Sayler: "Inevitably, the most prized entries in any genre have something fresh to say or an unusual approach to a topic. No matter how brilliant, witty, or clever this may be, however, the manuscript must also appeal to readers other than the writers own circle of friends or family."

(Judge #6) Kay Harwell Fernández: "Edit yourself – some entrants overwrite. Details and adjectives are good, but only if they are not over done. Make certain each sentence makes sense to the reader, and each paragraph moves the story forward. If the writer is passionate about his/her story/topic, the reader will want more. Originality is a tremendous plus. Every writer, whether aspiring, amateur, or professional, should be a reader of whatever genre he/she writes about."

(Judge #7) Tag Goulet: "In addition to exceptional writing, I am excited to find books that have something new to say. I love to be surprised reading a book, and to feel I have learned something new when I'm finished."

(Judge #8) Beth Kallman Werner: "Talented and skilled authors should always enter only their best work. Top entries are those that go beyond a great story idea, good concept and characters. Great editing, careful proofreading, and professional design details also help entries stand out."

2. What is the most frequent mistake that near-placing writers make to keep their writing from winning or even placing? Or, stated another way, what most often separates near winners from winners?

(Judge #1) James Neve:
"Having that something extra. Too many entrants seem to 'copy' well-trodden themes – an abused wife, an abduction or murder, or a love affair. If they are going to use these themes they need to find a different angle from which to approach the storytelling."

(Judge #2) S. Joan Popek: "Not proofing their entries. We have passed over some really good stories for some that may not have been quite as good because of grammar errors, spelling errors, misused words (like 'there' for 'their') and other simple things that should and would get caught in a thorough edit. My advice: Don't get lazy. Proofread and edit your work the best you can if you really want to win."

(Judge #3) Amy Harke-Moore: "Extraneous words. To me, poetry is the art of subtraction – boiling the poem down so that every word counts."

(Judge #4) Jolene Mechanic: "Authors need to write intelligently. They need to use spell-check.  Nothing is more off-putting than having to read a piece of literature that is full of misspellings and frequent grammatically incorrect sentences. Running into this makes me feel like I'm reading something written by someone who never reads a book."

(Judge #5) Mary Sayler: "Nothing new! If poets and writers would give their manuscripts just a little more time, they would most likely come up with a new insight or novel idea to make their writing pop. For example, poets and writers might observe each subject carefully and look for The word or phrase – not only to be precise in word choices and comparisons, but to add a little sound echo as they substitute one word or phrase for another."

(Judge #6) Kay Harwell Fernández: "Going that extra mile – when story, characters and carefully chosen words work together seamlessly and beautifully. That's when a judge says, 'Ah, this is a winner.'"

(Judge #7) Tag Goulet: "Without a doubt, the most frequent mistake writers make is not having their book properly edited. It's disappointing to read an otherwise excellent book and find the author frequently confuses your and you're, for example. But it's not only grammatical errors that separates near-placing writers from winning or placing writers. Outstanding books have also been edited for structure; they flow beautifully."

(Judge #8) Beth Kallman Werner: "Poor editing and proofreading as well as lack in design."

3. What reason(s) do most entries not succeed?

(Judge #1) James Neve:
"Echoing my answer to Question #2, we receive many stories where the reader turns the page and instantly forgets what he or she has just read. We also have entries from people who have completed Creative Writing Courses and their tales are very formulaic. Often there are also too many clichés and metaphors. Just like the editor in a publishing house ploughing through piles of competently written manuscripts, we are looking for that extra special something."

(Judge #2) S. Joan Popek: " After the non-proofing problems (see my answer to Question #2) weed out many submissions, 'Telling not Showing' is the number one reason that those remaining past the first tests fail in the final scoring.  An all Tell story is a boring story. It's as simple as that. Characterization weighs heavily in the scoring – make me get to know and care about your character, and you are well on the way to the top. And the next big thing: the winning stories must have a satisfactory resolution. Don't leave the reader hanging or have her say, 'Huh, what was that?' when she reads the last line."

(Judge #3) Amy Harke-Moore: "Lack of concrete images and ideas, a poem that doesn't communicate anything to the reader (lovely language, but the poet is the only one who understands what it means), sloppy presentation and typos, rhyming poetry that is amateurish, preachy poems, and abstract writing are the reasons most poems are rejected."

(Judge #4) Jolene Mechanic: "Lack of originality is a problem. Also – a thesis can be riveting, but will fall absolutely flat if it isn't written well. Sometimes writers have real problems staying on track, and this is important. One should develop a thesis that says, 'this is what I'm going to write about, and nothing else' – and then should stick sharply to that without digression. The worst disqualifications come from writers who do not follow the simple rules and guidelines of the competition!"

(Judge #5) Mary Sayler: "Wordiness and self-absorption just do not work well in poetry or in manuscripts of any genre for children. Take children's stories, for example. I often see 'nostalgia pieces' that could make a good story today, but the writer has obviously given no thought to the real child who might actually read the book or story. This probably occurs through self-absorption with one's own past or experience, so the story goes on and on, makes no point, and uses outdated lingo that creates a wall between the writer and the reader. If, however, 'nostalgia' poets and writers would consider such manuscripts their first draft, they could then focus on their readers as they revise. The result could be a 'winner manuscript' more important than any contest as the poet or writer gives today's children a sense of roots, values, and human connection they might not find in the inane, contrived adventures popularly published."

(Judge #6) Kay Harwell Fernández: "Lacking in plot, characterization, voice, and flowing smoothly; superfluous words; lack of originality; not moving the story forward, and explaining too much to the reader. At times, participants do not follow contest rules/instructions – e.g., formatting; submitting single-spaced copy or font in bold. For those submitting science fiction or fantasy, the story must make sense and not be a clone of today's popular sci fi; take note of the best: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.

(Judge #7) Tag Goulet: "Reasons nonfiction books don't succeed include: poor writing, lack of editing, lack of originality, and lack of credibility. An example of the latter might be a science book written by a non-scientist who has not established his or her expertise in the subject.

"A final note: stream of consciousness rarely works in nonfiction; an unedited book written in two days almost certainly will not win a legitimate book award."

(Judge #8) Beth Kallman Werner: "Books that are too predictable; poor editing. Telling vs. showing is very common and hard for many writers to overcome, which is one of the biggest differences between someone who simply likes to write and someone who is truly a creative writer. Both skill and talent are essential to produce a really great book. Authors who have both produce good quality books."


10 Tips for Winning Writing Contests

1. Begin with a bang.  Editors routinely say they read the first paragraph of a piece, and if they don't care about what happens next, they stop there, because the incoming mail stack is too high.  Contest judges often face even higher manuscript stacks. A quick way to weed out the losing entries is to discard all those where the first page doesn't give them a reason to go to the second page.  Before sending in an entry, read every article or book chapter you can find on openings, beginnings, leads. Then compare yours to what the experts say.  This applies equally to fiction and nonfiction.

2. Try to introduce an element of uncertainty or suspense at the beginning. Make the reader wonder how the article or story is going to turn out. David E. Sumner, professor of journalism and head of the magazine program at Ball State University and frequent contest judge, explains, "You do this by introducing an unsolved problem or putting the central character into a complicating situation. Too many stories have predictable content and predictable endings. If the reader (or judge) can figure out what's going to happen, then why bother to read the piece?" Stories and articles that keep judges reading all the way to the end make it to the finalists stack.

3. Make your characters alive and real.  Make them talk like real people.  Make every word of dialogue important to and move along the story. Judges want to see the people, both in fiction and in nonfiction.  Why do your fictional characters do and say what they do?  Why have your nonfictional people done or said what you're reporting about them?

4. Make your story different.  That means a different setting or unusual characters or a different plot.  If it's been used before, if it's trite, get rid of it. If two stories on that judge's pile are similar, they both lose.

5. If there is no length restriction or requirement, send a story or article of medium length (1,500 to 3,000 words). This doesn't overwhelm the judges, who don't really have time to read 10,000-word manuscripts. (This does not apply, obviously, if it's a full-length novel category or a juvenile category).

6. Have a positive ending. As Sumner puts it, "Positive doesn't necessarily mean happy.  Even if it has a sad ending, the story or article should have a positive meaning to it."

7. Make sure your story or article has a clear central theme that you follow throughout it.  You should be able to say, "This article or story is about . . ." and finish the description in one sentence.  Get rid of things that don't relate to that theme.

8. Look for a story with a theme that goes "against the grain" or contradicts conventional wisdom. David Sumner explains, "Sometimes I feel I can't stand to read one more article about sexual abuse or harassment, as necessary as those stories are in arousing public awareness. But if you write a story about a man's harassment by a woman, then I am likely to read it simply because it's different."

9. Follow the contest's rules. This seems too basic and simple, but every year we receive contest entries that do not follow the rules.  We even receive entries each year that have entrants' names on the manuscripts, either on the title page or on succeeding pages.  This is an obvious no-no, and breaks a very clear rule, but it happens multiple times every contest.  Other rules are there for a reason, and when judges must wade through that tall stack of entries, those breaking any rule are easiest to throw out. Also pay attention to the entry form so your entry will go to the correct category.  It's a mistake made every contest.

10. Watch for (or have someone else who's proficient at proofreading or copyediting watch for) errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, paragraphing, capitalization, and so on.  While this may not be as important as plot or style or characterization, it can be important when determining finishing order for all the finalists.

Copyright CNW Publishing; All rights reserved.


Notes On Judging a Poetry Competition

A first, quick reading separates the entries into piles. A few poems may get cut right away, but only if the most distinctive quality is an obvious lack of skill.

A second reading involves feelings with unusually appealing poems rising to the top. However, emotions evoked by sloppy work, offensive words, or unwelcomed subject matter work against a poem, making it harder to gain higher placement as the readings progress.  Subsequent readings shuffle each poem's placement.  It's like the Olympics when a gymnast's technical skill and fluid motions increase the score.  Depending on the number of entries, "favorites" might not make the final cut.

Some poems receive lower placement because they go on too long to sustain interest. Some have therapeutic value for the poet but exclude other readers. A children's poem may not be appropriate for young readers, especially if it ends with a cynical view or ironic twist. A beautifully written poem may suddenly get preachy, or a technically correct piece may have nothing interesting to say. Conversely, poems receiving greater attention show precision and musicality in word choices, a workable style for an interesting topic, and a fresh point of view. Such poems often provide an engaging story or a highly observant comparison.

Even in the last reading, placement continues to change. Close scrutiny shows if each word works, if syntax flows, and if the poem evokes images, insights, feelings, music, or memories for readers beside the poet. A big determining factor is whether the poem is, in some way, memorable.  And, finally: Does it fit its category of entry?

This last consideration should be the poet's first.  It takes a lot of time for a reader or judge to scan a stack of poems, so, conceivably, some may fall through the cracks, especially when entries specify no category. If poets aren't sure whether a poem is traditional or free verse, this may signal a need to round out the beat of metered verse or reconsider line breaks in free verse. To be truly "free" means no regular rhyme or regular beat; whereas traditional blank verse is blank of rhyming end-lines but has a consistent rhythm. For instance, accentual syllabic (metric) verse may consist primarily of iambic feet or, perhaps, the reversal of the iamb – a trochee.  An older style of traditional verse may be an accentual form, such as a two-beat strong-stress line, or may be syllabic verse comprised of a set number of syllables per line.  With such factors in mind and the category appropriately labeled, the poet stands a better chance of placing a well-crafted poem.

Written by and © Mary Harwell Sayler, Poetry Chairman

With arresting childhood memories, irony, and humor, Speaking Peach addresses the defining moments a Southern poet finds her voice. Written by poetry instructor and competition judge, Mary Harwell Sayler, the 40-page chapbook is available for $10 from the poet at PO Box 62, Lake Como FL 32157-0062.


How To Judge Your Manuscripts For Children

Written by Mary Harwell Sayler

Every time you enter a children's story, poem, or article in a reputable writing contest, such as the annual competitions sponsored by WEN/FFWA, you automatically become your own first judge. Assuming you have more than one manuscript from which to choose, you're the first person to read your words ­ and the first to know if your chosen entry represents the overall quality of your work. If, however, you have trouble (as writers often do) in deciding which manuscripts might be "winners" and which need further revision, these questions may help you to improve your judging skills:

  • In nonfiction, does your first sentence present your topic clearly, so young readers know right away what the article is about and why it might interest them? Being cleverly creative in your opening sentences can be a plus if your subject matter remains clear, but in a well-written manuscript, clarity matters more than creativity. A "winning" manuscript, however, usually displays both qualities.
  • In the opening chapter of your novel, does the first page initiate an action that involves the main character and introduces the basic problem or plot? Does this sense of immediacy begin with the first paragraph of your short story?
  • In considering your poems, do your key words, phrases, or comparisons have a strong connection to your primary image, tale, and tone? If, for instance, a poem compares (A) late homework to (B) a delayed telecast, does each line consistently relate to A and/or B with nothing to hinder the interaction of those ideas?
  • Do the manuscript's opening lines, including title, reflect the overall mood? For example, a wordplay or amusing phrase can provide a lively title for a humorous story whereas a one-word symbol could be effective for a serious poem.
  • For all types of writing, do your words move along with easy-to-picture nouns (sandpiper instead of bird) and active verbs (skittered) rather than passive voice and wordiness (is running nervously back and forth)?
  • Is the reading level appropriate for your intended reader? With few exceptions, a well-written manuscript for young children presents thoughts, dialogue, and statements in simple words and sentences a child would actually use. For middle-grade readers and up, difficult words can often defined by their context.
  • Is the content appropriate for your chosen age group? For example, a topic that's "too adult" usually means the examples or situations are not ones a reader of this age cares about or encounters. However, the more your readers can relate to your story, poem, or article, the more likely they'll be to read it.
  • Did you enjoy reading your manuscript again ­ and again? By the time it gets to me or another contest judge, your work receives an increasingly thorough reading with each upward advance.
  • As you read aloud, does anything signal a flaw? If so, trust your editorial instincts. By identifying a problem, you'll usually find workable solutions too. If not, put the manuscript away and judge another article, story, or poem you've written.
  • If you can't declare a "winner" among your manuscripts, don't despair! Talk to children. Visit the library. Surf the Internet for poems and stories children have written to see what's on their minds.
  • What's on yours? Does a memory search remind you of events that impressed you as a child? Is there a topic you're eager to explore? Are you involved in a hobby or activity that appeals to children? Will your words entertain, interest, help, or encourage young people in some way? Who? How? Why? You be the judge.

A well-published children's author, freelance and assignment writer, and poet for over 30 years, Mary Harwell Sayler judges poetry and the manuscripts for children entered in the annual writing competitions sponsored by Writers-Editors Network. Her Poetry Bolog is


Contest Cautions

At their best, writing contests provide motivation to complete those stories or poems, encourage high placers to keep writing, and even pay top winners a bit of cash.

At their worst, writing contests rob you of your rights – and sometimes of your money.

I've been administering a national writing contest for 30 years, plus have been reviewing contests for posting approval on our Contests page since 1998 – and I think I've seen everything. I refuse to post at least one contest almost every week. The good news is that most writing contests are on their "best" behavior. But here are some "worst" things to watch out for and be aware of –-

Entry fees. Actually, no entry fee is a warning sign. Contests cost time and money to administer, judge, and provide prizes. If there are no entry fees, who's paying for it all? Too often the no-entry-fee means the contest sponsor will be coming after entrants for something later.

Sometimes the "later" is in the form of a book of winning entries. And everyone who buys a book is a winner. The book may be fairly expensive, and surely the winner wants multiple copies for friends and family. Too often, these are not really contests, with one's work judged on its merits by professionals in the industry; but rather publishing entrepreneurs playing on writers' (especially poets') vanities. You buy books, you win.

Other times, the contest producers take it a step further and put on conferences with poetry readings. Entrants receive engraved invitations – because you are a winner, you get to attend and read your poem. Everyone is a winner. The producers make their money on the conference packages and books sold to attendees and entrants.

This is not to say that all no-fee contests are bad. But when you run across one, keep digging deeper into the fine print until you can find out who's funding the costs. In a very few instances, you will find a legitimate corporate or educational sponsor, but these are rare today. Even university-supported contests usually have minimum entry fees to (1) keep the not-serious writers out, and (2) help defray the costs.

Typical legitimate contests have entry fees of $2 to $5 for poems (sometimes three poems for $10), and $5 to $35 for articles, short stories and novel chapters. A complete book contest entry fee may run as much as $75.  Such fees will cover much of the prize money, some administrative time, and decent honorariums for multi-level judging. No one – not the sponsoring organization nor the judges – will get rich off it, but it will cover enough of the time and dollar costs to make the contest viable.

Ridiculously high prizes. Typically, contests within these entry fee ranges and with several hundred entries will have multiple cash prizes of $25 to $100 or $300, perhaps a bit higher. Contests with no or low entry fees offering $25,000 awards do not make financial sense. Keep digging. And hide your pocketbook, checkbook, and credit cards.

Rights grabs. A number of websites have contests with entry fees, where each and every entry is posted to the website – either for reading or judging. When you enter these contests, be aware that (1) you are paying to provide these sites with their content (nice business model for them); and (2) you can no longer sell first rights to the material because it's already been "published" as soon as it's posted. Some of these contests are legitimate "social" sites, with the members helping each other. But keep in mind; what is posted on the Web is up there forever (even after being deleted from a website), so certain rights can no longer be sold.

Other contests state in their rules that they retain the right to publish all entries! – with nothing said about any remuneration to the authors. It's one thing to ask for one-time print anthology rights of a dozen winning entries – quite another to assume any rights to all entries.

And some of those "free" contests sponsored by corporations retain all rights to all entries, especially the advertising jingle and greeting card verse contests. Of course, they can't do that unless entrants sign a statement transferring all rights, so be especially aware of lengthy entry forms with lots of fine print that require your signature.

Bottom line – Being among the winners in a writing contest can motivate you to keep writing, help place your book with an agent or publisher, or simply make you feel good. Just make sure you aren't giving your work away – or even worse, paying them to take it!

Written by Dana K. Cassell, Executive Director, Writers-Editors Network.

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