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How not to win writing competitions

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Article by Caren Kennedy © 21 December 2011.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Stop the lights I’ve done it.  I’ve entered a writing competition.  Granted my chances of winning are slim but that’s not the point.  The point is this: If I’m not in then I definitely won’t win.

Not entering is a sure-fire method to avoid winning but of course it’s not the only one.  Below are eight other easily avoided mistakes common to all writing competitions.

1.         Ignoring the rules:  They’re there for a reason – to guarantee a level playing field among entrants and to streamline the judging process.  Adhering to them will immediately give you a cutting edge over the competition and here’s why:  Many entrants don’t and rule-breakers are among the first to hit the rejection pile.  One obvious no-no is including your name on the manuscript, either on the title page or on succeeding pages, and yet it happens multiple times in every contest the world over.  Other common mistakes include submitting to the wrong category, omitting to pay the entrance fee and exceeding the stipulated word count.

2.         Failing to proofread:  The painful truth is that while correct spelling, grammar, syntax, typos and punctuation etc. may not be as important as characterisation, plot and style they can be critical when determining the finishing order of finalists.  To give yourself the best chance possible, make sure your own submission is word perfect and if in doubt have someone else who is proficient at proofreading do this for you.

3.         Missing deadlines:  In a word – don’t.  Every competition has a deadline and missing it means your entry will not even be considered.  It doesn’t matter how gripping or fabulous your story is, if it’s late, it’s binned.

4.         Disregarding subject matter:  There is simply no point in sending a 1,000-word short story to a competition seeking the first 250 words of a novel.  Need I say more?  Yes.  It happens.  But don’t let it happen to you.

5.         Poor presentation:  Using illustrations, fancy fonts, coloured paper, emoticons, etc. are guaranteed to make your entry stand out.  They are also guaranteed to irritate a judge.  As will submitting stained, worn and torn manuscripts. Without doubt they’ve been round the block a few times and if you don’t care enough about your work to present it in a professional manner, then why should a judge care enough to read it?  Moreover, text riddled with bold accents, italics, CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks !!!!!!!! is extremely distracting.  Make life easy for yourself, as well as a judge, by ensuring your submission is a clear read.  Do this by using generous margins with black, double-spaced text on white paper.  Nothing more.

6.         Inappropriate titles:  Never underestimate the importance of a good title.  It’s the first thing anyone sees and its primary function is to entice people into reading further.  By ‘good’ I mean it should give a clear indication of what the piece is about without ruining the surprise or twist to come.  At the same time, it can’t be so obscure or convoluted that it doesn’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the story through to the end.

7.         Waiting for the mood to strike:   Hands up – I’m guilty as charged.  Although writing is an emotional art form, it’s also a business.  If you don’t do it, nothing happens.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s also one of the reasons I’ve started taking an interest in competitions.  Not only are they are a great opportunity to have one’s work noticed by others in the industry, they offer a tangible goal which all writers can aim for.  Aside from cash, plaudits and publishing deals, prizes often include writing retreats, courses and free equipment for the winners as well as the runners-up.

8.         Lack of research:  All content is subjective to both the reader and writer.  Before entering a competition, check out who the judges are and study their work.  Look at previous winners also and try to determine what the competition is looking for above and beyond the criteria stated in the rules.  By no means does this mean you should stifle your own creativity and submit only what you think will ‘please’ the judge.  Rather, if a judge avoids using vulgar language in his or her own writing, for example, then it’s unlikely it will be appreciated in yours.

If you’re thinking that for someone who has yet to win a writing competition I sound impossibly sure of myself, then you’d be right. But don’t take my word for it.   All I’ve done here is regurgitate competition reports written by judges which I read as a first step to preparing my own entry.  By way of example, see what award winning short story writer Ivy Bannister has to sayhere (http://writing.ie/writers-toolbox/writing-better/tips-for-winning-short-stories/165-how-to-make-your-own-luck-with-short-stories.html) and follow the links provided in the constantly updated list of competitions here on writing.ie.

For more about Caren, please visit:  www.carenkennedywrites.com


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CAREN KENNEDY runs writing.ie's Word Play blog and is the creator of a television series currently in pre-production with Warner Bros TV and co-author of Fake Alibis (BenBella Books, 2009). As well as being a regular contributor to Journal.ie, publishing credits include local, national and international publications. In conjunction with The Inkwell Group, Caren also gives one-to-one mentoring on how to begin writing for television in her online course: http://www.inkwellwriters.ie/workshops/writing-tv-treatments. She is represented in the US by Vamnation Entertainment and TriadaUS Literary Agency.