Writing competitions: should you enter?

This was a post in January from Fiction Feedback on the blog by ALLi – Alliance of Independent Authors.

Writing Competitions: Why Enter, How to Win

Dea Parkin, Editor-in-chief at ALLi partner member Fiction Feedback and Secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association, tells us about her experience administrating and reading for major writing competitions and advises how best to go about preparing your entry.

I’ve worked with the Crime Writers’ Association running their international competitions, the CWA Debut Dagger and the Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition, for five years now and have judged entries for several national short story competitions for well over a decade. In this time, two things stand out: the varying levels of effort people put into their entries, and the amazing boost to confidence gained by those who are shortlisted – or even by those who simply find the courage to enter.

I think the latter comes about because writing can be a lonely pursuit. For those who don’t belong to online forums, or physical writers’ circles, then taking the decision to send in their work to be read by a stranger is actually quite amazing. Yet taking time to polish their entry, to examine rules and ensure it complies, and above all to submit before the deadline gives such a boost to self-esteem that whether or not you really care about winning, I recommend entering competitions as a way of developing your skills and honing that professional approach to writing which is so essential to success.

For those who go on to be shortlisted, or even win, the rewards far exceed the value of any prize.

One author who came second in one of the smaller competitions I mentioned went on to write a whole series of crime novels. At first he published independently, and then got a traditional contract and found that less time-consuming – he’s an industrious businessman as well as a writer – and he liked the validation he felt it gave him, too. He’s now on to his third series of novels and still says that without that original endorsement of the competition prize, he’d never have pursued his passion. Meanwhile, Mike Craven, a writer who was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2013 found that the publishers and agents whose doors had previously been closed to him were now beckoning him in. In 2019, Mike’s book The Puppet Show won the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and he now writes full-time. His story is here.

Submitting your work to be read by a third party can be life-enhancing, whether or not it brings tangible rewards. Honing your work, aware that it’s going to be read by a professional and judged against other entries, brings a sharpness to your self-editing that stands you in good stead in your growth as a writer. So even if the prize doesn’t interest you, or you think the competition will be too steep, I would recommend that you have a go. I know many multi-published writers who make a point of entering several competitions a year simply to keep that sharpness of approach. It’s also the case that a shortlisting in any competition looks great on the writing CV.

So how do you give yourself the best chance of winning? I mentioned earlier that one of the things I’ve observed over the years has been the different levels of care demonstrated in entries, from people disregarding the rules to not even running Word’s spellchecker over their entry. So let’s start with the obvious: follow the rules.

Too many good writers disqualify their entries by exceeding the word limit. This is the easy part of getting your entry considered, so make sure you read rules thoroughly for every competition and follow them. Judges won’t make allowances; if your entry is a few words too long or has your name on it where it shouldn’t, it won’t even be read. Hint: don’t, however, submit an entry that’s significantly under the maximum word count. The more words, the more potential there is for a satisfying story that engages the judges, so give yourself that advantage.

Where there’s a theme, make sure your entry encapsulates it, even if not in an obvious way. It might be subtle, but it mustn’t be tenuous.

Take the time to perfect your prose. Get the work professionally copy-edited if you can (if a competition doesn’t say you must not, then you can, and every reader or judge I know would actively encourage it. If lack of money prohibits, show it to someone you know is hot at English.) Hint: learn the rules about punctuation, especially around dialogue. Again, I know writers sometimes think if the submission itself is so good this won’t matter. Wrong. Quality of prose is almost always a judging criterion and when there are lots of very good entries, then judges will use whatever means they can to whittle them down. It’s perhaps one of the easiest ways you can make your entry competitive, as prose quality is not so subjective as other criteria, so make sure you finish your entry with enough time to pay it lots of attention.

What are the other criteria likely to be? Characterisation is one. It’s easier when there aren’t too many characters, so you can make them count. Consider how to make characters come to life so the reader is engaged and the reader cares what happens to them – even if it’s wanting to see their comeuppance. Hint: the most successful competition entries I’ve seen are either written from a single viewpoint or from two very different ones. In a short story, make sure something does happen and the character is in a different place from how they started, and that it’s a place that while we might not have guessed at the beginning, looking back from the end it’s quite logical and plausible.

Hint: don’t go for a dramatic twist at the expense of plausibility. It might get you on to a longlist, but it’s likely to count against you at the sharp end of judging. Your denouement might not be likely, but it must be plausible. The best entries of course are those that combine the startling outcome with complete plausibility. Resolve all your mysteries.

Hint: in short stories, or competitions for the openings of novels, such as the CWA Debut Dagger, abandon exposition. Start as or just before the major action starts. As long as it’s clear what that action changes, that’s spot on. Judges – like readers – look to find out how and why further on, they don’t need to know much in advance. If you’re asked for a synopsis as several novel competitions require, find out how to write one. It’s not a blurb; it’s not about tempting the judge to read. It must contain all the major plot points and who does what and why, but no detail about sub-plots; you won’t have space. Make it clear what the novel’s about and what’s different about it.

Ah yes, difference – or rather, originality! The holy grail. Yet my experience is that stories which go on to win are different enough, or different from current fashion, but not so different that a judge can’t be confident they have wide appeal. So overall, go for better over boggling, and don’t try to write your version of what’s already glutting the market. Judges always like something a little different.

A final word: if you know who the judges are, try to find out more about their writing preferences. With Google at your fingertips, it’s not difficult. Consider what you might write, or how, that could appeal to them. Hint: if they’re an editor at a commercial publishing house, don’t write anything too outre or cross genre. If they’re an award-winning literary writer – well, you can work it out.

Good luck.