Lessons From a Writing Contest Judge By Angela Hoy

A couple of years ago, I published this article – My Time to Whine: When A Contest Sponsor Gets FED UP!

It primarily described how the actions of some writing contest entrants can make somebody want to stop hosting a popular contest completely.

Today, I’m going to give you some hints on how to stand out in the crowd during your next writing contest.

Every quarter, we host the WritersWeekly.com 24-Hour Short Story Contest. We don’t make a profit on the contest. After charging a $5 entry fee for the contest to the maximum number of contestants (500), and then paying the judges (by the hour), and the winners ($300, $250 and $200), and also royalties to authors of books that are chosen as prizes for other contestants, we actually lose money on each contest. But, it is a good publicity tool and lots of fun so we keep it going, year after year.

After much head scratching and hand wringing over the weekend, we were finally able to choose the top three winners in the last contest (Spring, 2008).

Here’s some advice for anybody who is participating in a writing contest:

1. If the contest is on a specific topic or theme, write down the first thing that pops into your head…and then discard that idea. Then, write down the next thing that pops into your head, and discard that as well. Do this several times until you are convinced you are the only person in the world who would submit a story like that for the contest.

2. Don’t write a great story with a great main character and then reveal at the very end that the character is, in fact, an animal. We get several of these during each contest and, unfortunately, I also get complaints from entrants who used this idea and who didn’t understand why such a unique story didn’t win. It’s very common and not at all unique.

3. Don’t write a great story and then reveal, at the very end, that the character you’re writing about is (surprise!) actually an unborn baby. Yeah, we get one or two of those during every contest, too. They’re rarely a surprise and it’s not an original idea.

4. Don’t make the story based where the contest sponsor lives, or use the contest sponsor’s name or his/her family names as your story’s characters’ names. Judges can smell a brown-noser a mile away and it’s actually insulting.

5. And, regarding brown nosing, don’t insert rosy comments above/underneath your entry, praising the judges/the contest, and telling them how great they are, etc. Remain professional.

6. Edit your story and then have someone else edit it, too. Then, use your word processor’s spell- and grammar-checkers and then edit it again. The vast majority of stories we read contain several errors.

7. Don’t base your story on a fairy tale or another popular story/character. It may seem like you’re stealing from somebody else’s characters or that your idea is unoriginal. After reading thousands of short stories, we’ve seen this emerge as a pretty common theme.

8. Never make your story start with a dream. That is one of the most common techniques used.

9. Never end the story with the revelation that it was all a dream. It was horrible with that happened on the series Dallas and it’s still horrible today.

10. Don’t make your main character a writer. Way too many writers write stories about…writers.

11. Don’t use profanity or sex to the point where it may become offensive to judges. I’m a pretty laid back, hip and happenin’ gal and it’s pretty hard to offend me. But, our publication is family-friendly and if you submit something we can’t publish, based on extreme adult content, you’re not likely to win the contest. Profanity/sex has its place but taking it to the extreme is often unnecessary.

12. Give the judges a good ending! Ninety percent of the stories we receive fall flat, very flat, at the end. It’s really sad when we read a GREAT story and we’re anticipating a GREAT ending….but we’re left with nothing more than a few simple and boring adjectives and nouns that are no more interesting and exciting than the words, “The End.”

Angela Hoy is the co-owner of the ebook and print on demand publisher, Booklocker.com and the publisher of WritersWeekly.com.