Winning Tips

Winning Competitions Tip # 1

This first tip may seem trivial. It’s not, but it is simple: Follow the Rules.

Well, of course, you all know that.  And you make sure you do, even while your artist’s heart rails against the need to pin your glorious story, double-spaced in a standard text, to a boring piece of white A4.
You make the effort to cut that extra 500 words over the limit, even when it feels like you’re rejecting a loved one.

But surely, some are sure to think, the judge will understand that this story would be nothing without that 500 words, or coloured paper, or a special font to emphasise the theme.

Think of it this way: A judge,  faced with ten superb stories and having to select one winner, needs to find reasons to reject nine stories.

Is it difficult to read eg non-standard font, too small font, a bad printout, shiny paper, coloured paper etc?  If Yes: Reject.
Is it too long, or too short? If Yes: Reject.
Or, the saddest reason to reject a quality entry…
Was there a properly completed cover sheet attached, as requested. If no: Reject.

Sentencing a quality story to the reject pile is frustrating for the judge, or judges, as much as it is for the writer.

The simple, but not trivial, solution. Follow the rules.

Winning Competitions Tip # 2

Another obvious tip: Edit.

Let’s assume that as a practiced writer of short stories you’ve already given a lot of thought to which character can best tell the story, to developing a cracking plot to best tell the story, to…  well, all those aspects of story telling workshops keep coming back to – hooks, setting, climax, ending etc etc etc.

This tip isn’t about that sort of editing. Not the BIG editing that shaped your second and third draft. No. Not them.

This tip is about the small editing that buffs an already shining short, that adds the ultimate polish to your raw words.

Yes, this tip is talking about spelling and grammar and punctuation.

Again, we worry about such small things because a judge faced with great stories really needs to find a reason to choose one over the others.

Polishing your final draft.

Check spelling.

  1. Do not rely on your software spelling checker.  Use it as a guide only to find obvious typos.
  2.  A good way to check the bulk of your spelling is to read the story backwards. Then none of the words are in context and you will not be tempted to see a word as spelt correctly when it is not.
  3. Cheque words that sound the same so you no you have the write one.
  4. Look for words that can be easily changed by a keystroke: be/bee; to/too; an/and, etc.
  5. And finally, for writers whose computer systems now rely on predictive text, a double check to make sure you are the only one putting words in your mouth.

Check grammar, often the first thing to suffer during early editing sessions.

  1. Do not rely on your software’s grammar checker.  Examine each problem the checker finds and decide whether to stick or to attempt a re-write.  Checkers are excellent at discovering passive sentences, by the way.
  2. Re-check parts of speech, particularly pesky pronouns, awkward adverbs and verbs that just want to veg out.
  3. Double check dialogue. Most errors seem to take the form of a comma, or an inverted comma, in the wrong spot.

If you doubt your grip on spelling or punctuation, then there are books of rules. Yes, many of those rules are discussed online, but best advice is to believe the book before wiki.


Winning Competitions Tip # 3

Style me a winner.

No writer needs to obsess about readers, but all writers need to at least think about them. This truism is never more relevant than for a writer in competition mode, when your entry will speak directly to a select audience – the judge.

To know what a judge wants, first consider what a judge does.

  • A judge may be faced with 1000 stories demonstrating a wide range of skills and, with any luck, covering a wide range of themes, then be asked to pick a short list of the best.
  • A judge may asked to choose one best story from a short list of excellent stories.
  • Most judges have day jobs. Many have families. You can expect judges to read the stories at odd hours, when demands on their time are few or when a few minutes here and there can be snatched.
  • At different stages of the judging process a judge may not be weighing one story against another, but simply deciding if a story is worthy of having a second look.
  • Nevertheless, a good judge seldom reads a story only once.

To have your story read at least twice, ensure it’s physically easy to read. Some competition entries I have seen contained:

  • Fancy fonts
  • Small fonts
  • Extra large fonts
  • Extra wide magins
  • Fancy papers
  • Booklet layouts
  • Hand written (scrawled) sections
  • Illustrated sections (particularly nasty when the pix hide the words)
  • Balloons
  • Jelly beans
  • Singing cards
  • And last, but not least, a condom – for illustrative purposes.

None of the above made a story easier to read.

It’s easy to add ‘junk’ to entries, but writers can be much more effective by considering judges’ enjoyment of the actual prose component of their story.

One of your first jobs as a self-editor is to look at your own style. Consider:

  1. Language – is it fresh, energetic, immediate. Shorter words often work better than longer words, but that’s not always the case.
    Most of all, use the right word.
  2. Structure – are sentences and paragraphs varied in length. Again, short can be sweet, but variety adds spice.  Even a one-word paragraph can add some zing.
  3. Design – white space is divine. A lack of white space could be an indication that structural work needs doing.
    Be generous with white space. If the page looks full, make sure those big chunky paragraphs really need to be as chunky. Often there’ll be two or three points made in one paragraph, whereas paragraphs have always been single minded in what they have to say.

Winning Competitions Tip # 4

Learn from what, and how, you read.

If you’re like me, you have a reading past simply littered with discarded stories. Perhaps we didn’t like the cover. Perhaps the blurb put us off. Perhaps the first words we read just didn’t do it for us.

We know, because we’ve been there, how easily stories can be put aside.

The other side of that coin is that we also know, if we want to think about it, how writers can’t keep everybody happy all the time. We understand how long the odds are that our brilliant, funny, touching, thrilling entry will find a judge who fully appreciates our work.

It takes courage to send our darlings out, alone in the darkness, often never to return. Luck is something over which we have no control.

But unlike the unchanging chance of winning Lotto, the odds of winning a writing competition can be significantly shortened, assuming we are ready to learn from the stories we enjoy reading.

So what do you, the writer, see in the stories you, the reader, love?

Chances are you’ll see:

  • Characters you can relate to, care about and whose story is about challenges met, and perhaps overcome.
  • A story that gets straight to it, without lengthy introductions.
  • Backstory that’s revealed as and when necessary.
  • A story with something important to say – whether about relationships, the environment, criminal activity or political chicanery, etc, etc.

In short: a story in which STUFF happens to PEOPLE you can EMPATHISE with.