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How To Write For Literary Competitions

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Like magazine editors, competition judges are also looking for a strong element of action, drama or surprise in the entries. It’s what catches their attention and makes them pause to read further; and the key to any winning entry is originality. Literary competitions offer opportunities for the more unusual and non-mainstream writing in short stories, opening chapters of novels, poetry (singles and collections), articles and essays. Although a few competitions give a ‘theme’, the majority are open and the choice of theme, style or subject is left to the writer.
There’s no shortage of competitions for writers of all levels, but we need to be sure we’re not entering material that doesn’t come up to standard for that particular event. Many competition entries don’t pass the first reading because they’re just not good enough. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities.
A study of the previous year’s anthology and the work of this year’s judges will give a strong indication of the standard of writing required to get onto the short list. For smaller competitions the guideline is pure guesswork as to what the adjudicators will find appealing but be guided by the focus of the organisation administering the competition – i.e. health, animal welfare, writers’ group, literary society, etc.,
The majority of competitions charge a fee for entering and this is expected to cover the amount paid out in prize money. The higher the prize-fund the higher the competition from other writers. Fees can range from £1 for a single poem to £20 for opening chapters of a novel. A large number of new writers earn more from their competition winnings than via submissions to magazines.
Most competitions have submission guidelines and these contain important rules for entry. Where official entry forms or special requirements are part of the rules, this will be clearly stated and must be adhered to. Failing to comply may result in your entry being disqualified, so ignore guidelines at your peril. If no formal guidelines are given, the following will usually apply: unless otherwise stated, all competition entries should be in English; unpublished and not currently entered for any other competition; typed, double-spaced on one side only of white A4 paper. All pages should be clearly numbered. No identifying marks normally appear on the typescript, which should include a separate title page giving name, address and telephone number. Some competition organisers will accept entries by email.
Always discard the first idea that comes into your head. This is because a hundred other writers will have had an identical thought for an article, poem or short story stimulated by something seen on television, read in a magazine or newspaper, or heard on the radio.
Everything we write needs a strong ‘hook’ to grab and hold the reader’s attention, and the competition entry’s hook should be doubly barbed. Your opening lines will be the deciding factor as to whether the entry is selected to go on to the next stage of judging.
The writing selected for the next round will not be the sort material that usually appears in mainstream women’s magazines. You need to think in terms of a cutting edge approach to a popular theme.
The usual reason for rejection in the second stage of competition judging is that although the standard of writing is generally good and the opening strong, the writer has failed to maintain the standard throughout the piece; it lacks any surprises; or has a weak/predictable ending.
Avoid gratuitous strong language, sex and violence if used purely as a shock tactic. A study of the previous year’s winners will show how much is considered to add a necessary dimension to the entry.
If an envelope marked ‘results’ is enclosed, most competition organisers will now supply them on request.
Competitions serve as an ideal apprenticeship for writers as entry to a wide variety of events allows them to experiment with different styles of writing; there is a small fiancial reward if successful; and the challenge of working to a deadline.
Judges’ pet hates include talking animals – and ‘it was only a dream’.
Avoid mawkish sentimentality
Submit the entry well in advance of the closing date
Always keep a copy and record of submissions.
If the guidelines state that an entry must be unpublished, it means exactly that. In competition (especially where prize money is involved) ‘previously published’ includes anything from the parish magazine to the company newsletter. Be assured, someone will report the infringement of the rules and you will be disqualified, even if you have been declared a winner.


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