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4 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Winning a Writing Contest

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I believe in writing contests.

I believe they offer a great deal of value to writers in multiple ways. I shared some of the benefits of contests for both published and unpublished writers in this post: Why Bother With Writing Contests?

In fact, finaling in a writing contest is what led to my big break. In 2009, I entered a contest for unpublished writers with two manuscripts. Both of the books finaled. After getting the phone call regarding the final, I emailed the agent who had my book sitting in her slush pile (she’d already requested the full of one of my manuscripts but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet).

The contest final perked the agent’s attention. She plucked the manuscript from her slush pile. Three days later she called and offered me representation. Three months later we held a contract in our hands for a three-book deal. (Sometimes good things really do come in threes!)

So, yes, contests can be pivotal in a writer’s career. Of course, contests can also be a huge waste of time and money, especially for writers who aren’t ready in their writing skills. Or for writers who don’t take the time to prepare.

Before I entered my manuscripts in the writing contest, I spent hours honing the pages that would be a part of the entry. The books were already finished (I don’t recommend entering contests with unfinished manuscripts). I’d already self-edited the manuscripts. But I took even more time to make sure those first pages were in top-notch shape.

That extra preparation can help give our manuscripts an edge.

Here are 4 things writers can do to increase their chances of winning a writing contest:

1. Open your manuscript with a strong hook. The first line. The first paragraph. Even more than that, the first scene. Each one is extremely critical and should be crafted to bait the reader into needing to find out more. Start with the real conflict. Add tension right away. Don’t worry about setting up the story just yet.

2. Make the story read smoothly. Don’t use clich├ęs. Pick words carefully. String sentences together seamlessly so that the reader cannot tell if you’re an amateur writer or a professional. In other words, don’t make awkward beginner mistakes, especially in the first page that may automatically influence a judge’s opinion about the rest of your manuscript.

3. Polish the entry until it sparkles. Do a big picture edit, then a line-edit. Take the time to get every detail right. Send it to a critique partner for feedback. If possible, pay a freelance editor read through your entry (preferably the first 15-30 pages).

4. Enter multiple contests. If the judges offer feedback, make sure to use their ideas as a springboard for improving your manuscript. (This will require developing a thick skin!) Then after making the changes, enter the manuscript in another contest. Don’t give up. Feedback from each judge can make the entry better for the next contest.

The practice of polishing our first chapter for contests won’t be wasted effort. Even if you never final in a contest, the work will help make the manuscript all that much better for querying and publishing.

After all, when we query or publish our manuscripts, we’ll only have those first few pages to hook our readers. If they see beginner mistakes right away in our manuscript, they’ll likely brand us as an amateur. They’ll be our harshest critics, much more so than contest judges.

So why not do the hard work of perfecting the first pages as much as we possibly can?

And if you have the chance, enter a contest or two. You never know what may happen as a result.

Side Note: For those writing romance, the Golden Heart Awards Contest through RWA (for unpublished writers) starts accepting entries sometime in September. NOW is the time to begin polishing your entries!

So what about you? Have you entered any writing contests? What efforts do you make to polish the first pages of your manuscript (whether you enter contests of not)?


44 comments:

  1. I just entered Novel Rocket's contest for contemporary fiction, so we'll see what that yields. They promise a critique with your entry, so I'm excited for that and more than willing to pay the $35.

    I entered the Genesis this year and did make it the semi final round, but the comments from the judges were the gold. They were tough, but encouraging and constructive. It really makes a HUGE difference when judges agree and don't argue soundlessly through their comments. ;-)

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    1. It totally makes a difference, Casey. I agree. When you have several judges all noticing the same things, then you know they're not just being subjective. And that sounds like a great deal with Novel Rocket's contest! All of the feedback will be excellent for getting your manuscript ready for presenting to editors (either at a conference or through querying). You'll be sure to grab their attention! :-)

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  2. PERFECT timing! :)

    My writing critique partner and I were just discussing writing contests via email this morning. I'm sending her a link to this post right now. Thank you, Jody!

    (I love your posts for writers! You have the most helpful information.) :)

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    1. That IS perfect timing, Tracy! I hope the post will be useful to your critique partner too!

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    2. Definitely (says the critique partner) - thanks for this, Jody. I'm new to your site, but agree that you offer a lot of very helpful, right-to-the-point information.

      From your perspective, do you see a difference in submitting to contests vs. literary journals as a means of getting attention? I'm working on a novel and a book of short stories simultaneously - primarily because I know shorts offer opportunities for submission so much earlier, as well as ways to help hone your storytelling abilities before getting through the heft of a novel. I'm to the point where I want to start putting the shorts out into the world, but am not sure yet which route to go (or whether to try both)...

      Thanks for any insights you can offer!

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    3. Hi Jill! Thanks for stopping by! I don't know that short stories will get you the same agent attention that contest finals will. Obviously, any publication experience is something to put into your query. But because short stories are an entirely different beast than novels, I'm not sure that agents are going to put much stock in them, unless of course you have exceptional sales.

      All that to say, that I think e-shorts are becoming a viable marketing technique (as are e-novellas). If you have really good sales and can build a name for yourself through such a route, then agents will definitely take notice of you.

      Hope that helps! It's definitely not going to hurt you to do both! The exposure will only help!

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    4. Thanks so much for your thoughts on this Jody. It's a daunting process, and every little bit of insight/experience helps!

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  3. I haven't entered a contest, yet, but I'm excited to do it soon! As I think about your blog and all the great advice you have for authors - would you ever consider making a list of all the contests you may know of? It would be a lot of work, but I know it would be an awesome list for beginning writers to have. Even now, I didn't know about the RWA contest your mentioned or the one that Casey mentioned. Even if you opened it up (like the post about writing books) and asked others to post contests that they know about - maybe it wouldn't be so much work. I know about the Genesis Competition and the Frasier through MBT - but that's about it!

    Thanks for the tips on getting my manuscript ready for a contest. I love having these bits of knowledge and wisdom from someone who has already been there.

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    1. Hi Gabrielle,

      That's a great idea! I'll file that away for possibly doing in the future! If you're writing romance, RWA has a great list of Chapter contests on their website: http://www.rwa.org/cs/chapter_conferences_and_events#contests

      That's probably the most comprehensive list I've ever seen as far as contests for romance writers. But I think getting a list of ALL the contests out for all kinds of writers (including self-published) would be a wonderful resource!

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    2. The Seekerville blog also publishes a lengthy list of contests and submission opportunities at the beginning of every month -- http://seekerville.blogspot.ca/ -- which I print out for reference.

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  4. Hello - I haven't entered a contest, but it definitely interests me. I recently started to follow your blog and really enjoy the posts that I've read. You do a great job translating your own experiences to other writers, while giving sound advice.

    For me personally, it's very helpful to read a post like this one because I am interested in entering a contest or finding an agent even though I haven't started the process yet. I really appreciate your specific points because they're honest and encouraging, which gives me hope.

    So thanks for this post (and others). It's given me a very positive start to my day. I look forward to catching up on your past posts and reading your future ones.

    Also on a side note, you mentioned in an earlier post (I think it was "5 Ways to Gain Attention...") that you're just an "average" writer. I would disagree completely based on your blog alone. It's very well written.

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words about my blog and my writing! Your sweet words brightened my day! :-) As I mentioned in my last post, I've been climbing the steps upward for a long time now and have developed my writing muscles through hard use and honed my writing skills by a lot of practice!

      Wishing you all the best as you move forward in your writing journey!

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  5. Good morning Jody! =)
    Wow, now you got me wanting to enter a writing contest. Hmm.. it sounds so interesting and sort of scary for a hopeful writer like me. But just a quick question: how many pages would you suggest for the manuscript? I'm really new at this, but writing is definitely something I think about. Sorry, jut a couple more questions, if you don't mind :
    For the contest, you just send your manuscript online and the judges reply? How along does it take?
    And if they like your manuscript... is it possible to find an agent, or to get started, you know?

    Thank you so much Jody! Your blog is really helpful and I'm truly wishing you a GREAT day and all my best in your writing journey.

    =)

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    1. Great questions Ganise! Each contest will specify a certain number of pages and it usually varies from between the first 15 to 30. Then you will fill out a contest entry form (on the website for that particular contest). Once you fill out the form and pay the entry fee, then you will get the instructions for where to send your manuscript pages. The process of judging usually takes several months (sometimes even up to 6 months). And yes, if you final in a contest, it's definitely a way to get your foot in the door with an agent especially if the contest is a popular national contest.

      Wishing you a great day too! :-)

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    2. Thank you, Jody.

      Ganise

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  6. I entered the Genesis and Frasier contests this year and found, for the most part, the feedback was really helpful. The judges asked good questions I hadn't thought about. I definitely was a beginner when entering, though. I hadn't revised much and, even though I think it was all grammatically correct, etc., I think there were deeper issues I needed to resolve. I also just started working with a CP, which has already made a huge difference in my writing!

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    1. Hi Lindsay,

      I'm glad the contest feedback didn't discourage you too much and that you kept going! I think that's one of the dangers about entering a contest too soon in a career, the feedback could seem slightly overwhelming and confusing. But hopefully you were able to pull something useful out of it! And so glad to hear that you found a critique partner and that it's been a good experience so far!

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  7. Thank you, Jody, for this post! As a former finalist you give us all hope for similar success.

    Predators and Editors is a site aimed at protecting writers from disreputable contests. They have a list of contests and post their approval or disapproval of each. They do not recommend any that charge fees. Did you pay fees?

    I have heard that it is wise to check this list before submitting any work, since some disreputable places claim all rights to your work. Have you heard of any incidents where this has actually happened?

    I would be interested in what you have to say on this subject. Again, thank you for educating us!

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    1. Hi Rhonni!

      Thanks for bringing up Predators and Editors site. That's an invaluable resource for writers. I would definitely check the list before submitting (unless of course, it's a nationally known contest like RWA's or ACFW or Writer's Digest).

      I would have to disagree with their suggestion not to enter contests that charge fees. I think most contests charge fees (for both published and unpublished writers). Most of the RWA Chapter contests have fees and the big national ACFW contest also charges fees.

      That's why I suggest waiting to enter contests until you feel really ready. It could end up being a waste of money! But on the other hand, if you were to pay a freelance editor to critique the first chapter of your book, you'd likely have to pay more than you would for the contest entry (and at least with ACFW you get the feedback from three judges).

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  8. Jody, I entered my first writing contest last year. And I am so glad I did, because I won! I have entered another this year. And regardless of the results, I'll still be glad I entered.

    On a side note, I mentioned your Tuesday post on my blog today. :)

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    1. Congrats on winning the contest, Linda! It's always such great validation to know that you're on track, isn't it! And thanks for the mention in your Tuesday post! I appreciate the shout out!

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  9. Thank you Jody, these are great tips! I've been totally obsessed with contests lately and just entered a bunch, so these are really helpful tips. I actually have a surprisingly hard time with your point number 1, because I tend to read and love very character driven, slower paced books, so I have to consciously make sure that even if the characters are the most important I have to drop them into the heat of the conflict from the very first moment. Thanks for the reminder!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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    1. Hi Sarah,

      I think that it's possible to still have strong characters and even a character-driven story but at the same time open your story on a strong hook that grabs your reader. It may take a bit more brainstorming and wrestling with your creative spirit to find that spot! But I do think it's possible!

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  10. Jody - I posted a link to this article on my blog that is pretty much devoted to writing contests. My writng journey also began with a contest win, but a much smaller scale.

    While I agree on the basic premise of being honest with yourself about your skill level before entering a contest, I still think they can be valuable tools. Because I have paid entry fees, I am more motivated to
    1. Be more thorough with my editing
    2. Write as strong of a piece as possible
    3. Go otuside my comfort zone

    Yes it sucks not to win, and it can feel like a waste of cash. However, my writing has only improved in quality as a result of writng competitions, and I've turned my losers into winners by going back to the drawing board and submitting to online/print journals. After all, getting published is the biggest contest there is!

    Finally, helpful critiques are valuable. Just try looking up how much editing/critiquing services cost and you'll find a contest that offers feedback is a bargain. And for the true penny pincher, there are cheap and even free contests available.

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    1. Excellent, excellent points, Nate! Thanks for adding your wisdom to the discussion. And I agree that writing contests can be a fairly inexpensive way to get professional feedback. On the other hand, one must make sure the judges are qualified, or else the contest feedback could get confusing. But overall, I think that most reputable contests work hard to offer high-level judging.

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    2. website link btw - http://www.competitivewriter.com

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  11. Jody,
    Thanks for the enthusiastic support you always provide in your columns. I'm new to the writing world but in the last year I've entered three contests and have done well. I'm taking it as a sign I'm on the path God wants me to be traveling. I was a Genesis semi-finalist and currently I'm a finalist in the Faith Hope and Love contest for RWA. Being somewhat of a newbie I have some questions:
    1. It seems some of the contests carry more clout than others. I'm assuming the Genesis is the ultimate but what are some of the more prestigious contests we should be considering? (especially if limited funds narrow our contest entries :-)
    2. When I share contest news, friends and relatives often ask how many other entries I was up against.I have no way of knowing this. I'm not sure about proper contest etiquette.Is this a "tacky" question to ask the contest coordinator when I'm notified?
    Thanks for your help.

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    1. Hi Ava,

      Yes, indeed! Some contests do provide MUCH more clout than others. In the CBA market, the Genesis is probably the most prestigious. I think agents and editors would also look favorably on a final in the Faith, Hope, and Love unpublished writer's contest too (so congrats on that!). A Golden Heart final is an HUGE boost to unpublished writers. Most go on to get agents and book contracts as a result (see the link I provided above. It opens in Sept. and is very popular).

      If you want to find out how many entries are in the Genesis contest, those might be listed on the ACFW website under each year's finalists. But overall, there's really no way to know how many contestants. What you should tell people is that the market is very competitive and if you final, no matter how many entries for a nationwide contest, that's always a very good sign that you're on track!

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  12. I missed the Noel Rocket contest for my genre by 3 days!!! And I was not amused. I'm still not even aware of all the contests out there.

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  13. Feel free to adv a V anywhere you'd like.....

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  14. Great tips. The writers who follow these will increase their chances of taking home the top prize in any writing contest. I hope everyone who enters ours will follow the tips. www.valhallapress.com/contest.php

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  15. I recently entered a writing contest arranged by our local library. I don't like to enter contests with high entry fees; the library entry fee was $10 and the first prize is $200. I've seen some organizations that charge up to and over $100 as an entry fee. I'm cynical enough to wonder if their operating budget receives a boost from the entry fees. I was able to find out that the library contest last year received only 12 entries so I hope to have a chance.

    I find that contests often have a word count or topic or opening line that must be used so this does involve producing original content just for the purpose of the contest. Good practice if nothing else.

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  16. I'll definitely consider this when my next wip becomes ready. Thanks!!

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  17. Thanks Jody. I've just finished entering my first contest. A short story contest, which I've never done before. I'm going to use it as a first chapter for another book. We had to start with the sentence, "The cell was eight feet wide..." I think it was pretty good and sparked an idea for a new novel to come. At the very least, if I don't win, I have a promising novel to give birth to!

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  18. Hi everyone! Thanks for leaving your thoughts!

    Cynthia, I definitely wouldn't enter a contest for that charged $100. That's way to much. Most contests I've entered run anywhere from $20-40 per entry. And I'm sure many of the organizations use the contest entry fees to pay for their operating expenses (including guest speakers, chapter meetings, etc.). So the contest fee is usually going for a good cause.

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  19. Thanks for another excellent post, Jody! You always give me something to think about.

    In theory I know contests are valuable, and I've entered (and finalled) in a few. But it takes me months to get up my courage and I'm almost in panic mode by the time I hit the 'send' key. Often as not I keep writing and polishing instead of submitting. I'm currently working on an entry for the contest associated with a conference I'm attending in October, and I'm aiming for the Golden Heart this fall, too, so will see how it goes.

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  20. Thanks for this post Jody and you're absolutely right! The amateur mistakes, especially on the first page, can really influence a judge's decision against you. For my first page, I'm really trying to make sure my readers are sucked into the world of my characters, and become interested in the characters quickly.

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  21. Hi. I first want to thank you for this post. It was very informative to me. I was wondering if editors/agents have anything to say about manuscripts being submitted to contests. I was told that if you publish more than 2 chapters on your blog, some publishers consider your work already published. Do contests count the same way? And do you have certain places you go to look for contests? I would really appreciate any assistance you can give me.

    Sincerely,
    M.J. Wille, author

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    1. I have never heard of an agent or editor snubbing writing contests. In fact, many of them act as judges for national contests (for the final rounds) and in doing so often "find" authors.

      As far as publishing a book on your blog, I would probably lean toward not doing so--unless of course, you're planning to self-publish and are looking at it as a way of generating some interest for readers. I think that most traditional publishers limit the amount of a manuscript that an author can post (I have a certain word count limit in my contract.) Thus I'm restricted with how much of my book I can post on my website, blogs, interviews, etc.

      And where to look for contests? It really depends on what you're writing. If you write romance, then you need to check out Romance Writer's of America website. They have a VERY thorough listing of romance contests. (Their link is at the bottom of the post.)

      Hope that helps! :-)

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  22. I had a similar experience. I entered two novels in contests at Writers League of Texas Conference, one won in its category and the other was a finalist in a different genre. Then I pitched them at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. The effort to hone the manuscript, especially those first pages I think helped me get a foot in the door. Great posting Jody.

    Richard Hacker
    www.richardhacker.wordpress.com

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  23. Excellent advice! I want even going to bother entering a writing contest, I had no idea how valuable they can be.

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  24. This post is the best. Truly. All the pure knowledge and legit information is in this post. This article is not like those articles which tell us fake news. This is legit. Thanks a lot for that.

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