How to win writing contests (with writing-contest record template)

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You can improve your chances of getting longlisted for (or even shortlisted or winning!) a writing contest. Discover how to get ahead of the rest.

With my debut novel manuscript at the stage of a solid final draft, I’ve started to enter it into writing contests. My rationale is that I stand a better chance of attracting agents’ attention if I can say I’ve been longlisted for at least one contest.

Maybe I will achieve this, maybe I won’t, but you’ve got to be in it to win it, as the famous slogan goes for a particular lottery…

I’ve learnt a lot about the dos and don’ts of entering writing contests over the past few weeks. The guidance will vary slightly depending on whether you’re submitting flash fiction, a short story or a longer manuscript, but here are the broad-brush highlights:

Your story

It may sound obvious, but it needs to be said. To win a writing contest, you need a good story that is well written.

You will no doubt have studied the craft of writing and be aware of the main elements that go into a fantastic manuscript. Bear all this in mind, with particular attention to the following advice to reel the judges into your story.

Write interesting, authentic characters

You can’t have a good story without an interesting cast of characters. The judges need to engage with them, relate to them and care about their fate (whether rooting for them to succeed or hoping they get their comeuppance).

Ensure your characters are three-dimensional and react in believable ways. Raise the stakes to keep the judges interested and make them want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to your characters or how they will escape a predicament.

You can't have a good story without an interesting cast of characters. From: How to win writing contests Click To Tweet

Have an engaging opening line

Hook the judges from your first sentence. Look at the first page of other stories in the same genre as yours. Do you want to keep reading? Why do you feel that way? How does the writer achieve this? Try to employ similar techniques (obviously without plagiarising!) in your writing.

Edit and proofread

You may have a fantastic story, engaging characters and the best plot twist, but if your manuscript is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, the judges will dismiss it.

Carefully check your work multiple times, or if you think you’re too close to it, hire a professional editor.

Submission guidance

It would be a real shame if your story is a potential winner but you trip up on the technical submission details. Avoid falling at the final hurdle by following this advice:

Stick to the word limit

Most writing contests have a word limit. For flash fiction and short stories, this will be for the whole piece. For full-length novel manuscripts, you will probably be asked to submit a certain number of words to begin with (e.g. the first 5,000 or 10,000 words). If you’re longlisted, you will be asked to send the rest of your manuscript.

For full-length novels, you will probably also be asked to submit a synopsis and author biography. These will have either word or page limits, which may or may not be included in the same word limit as your manuscript sample. For example, some contests may ask for a submission of 10,000 words to include the synopsis and bio, others may ask for the first 10,000 words of your manuscript, plus a synopsis of two pages or 500 words, and an author bio of 200 words.

Carefully read the word-limit rules as these tend to be strictly adhered to by the judges. If you’re entering multiple writing contests, stay organised and concentrate on one at a time to ensure you don’t mix up the rules. Use my free template to record your writing contest entries.

Enter the right genre category

Many writing contests are either for a particular genre or they offer a selection of genres as categories. Ensure you know the genre of your book and that you enter it into the relevant competitions or categories.

If you don’t do this, your book is likely to be disqualified, no matter how amazing it is.

Enter the right genre category in writing contests, or your book is likely to be disqualified, no matter how amazing it is. From: How to win writing contests Click To Tweet

Stick to the theme

Short story contests often have a theme. Again, this may sound obvious, but make sure your story matches the theme, or it will be disqualified.

Ensure you match the entrant profile

Some writing contests ask for entries from particular writers, for example, under-represented authors. Make sure you match the entrant criteria, otherwise you won’t be considered.

The Writers & Artists website provides a list of opportunities for under-represented writers.

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Follow any technical guidelines

There will be other guidelines to follow, depending on the contest. You may be asked to upload a file following a particular naming convention or observe other technical details. Payment methods and timelines vary from contest to contest, so familiarise yourself with these.

Triple-check the admission rules

Every writing contest has its own set of rules and regulations. Carefully check the list that is specific to the contest you’re entering. And, of course, make sure you send your entry before the deadline!


Enter many writing contests

Why put all your eggs in one basket when there are so many writing contests you can enter? The entry fees tend to be reasonable (some are free!) so set a budget and submit to your heart’s content!

Be organised

If you’re entering several writing contests, keep a record of which ones you have entered, which ones you plan to enter, and certain details such as entry cost, deadline and other data. I’ve created a simple writing-contest record template that you can download and use to keep track of all those lovely writing contests!

Take feedback on board

Some writing contests provide feedback on some or all entries, or offer a paid feedback service. If you receive feedback, take this as constructive advice and use it to improve your writing and your chances of winning the next writing competition.

Don’t dwell on the fact that you haven’t won this particular writing contest. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

In summary

Competition is fierce for writing contests. However, there are certain things you can do to increase your chances of winning, or at least move to a long list or short list.

Follow the advice in this article and, before long, you may have your first writing-contest win under your belt!

Let me know in the comments if you’ve entered any writing contests recently or if you’ve got a success to shout about. I’d love to celebrate with you!

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2 Responses

  1. Pam

    Hello, thanks for this post. As common-sense as the list is, it bears repeating. But I’d hoped for at least a para on how and where to research contests. Maybe you have a different post on it that I’m unaware of! Thanks.

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Hi Pam, thanks for your thoughts! Yes, much of the advice seems like common sense, but it’s handy to have it all in one place for those writers new to entering contests. As for researching contests, a quick Google search brings up all the latest ones. You could also sign up to Sian Meades-Williams’s excellent weekly newsletter, which lists many of the current writing opportunities, including writing contests. Good luck!

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