Step Into the Winner’s Circle!

Wouldn’t you love to be known as an “award-winning writer”? The phrase has such a lovely ring to it — a cachet of success. You may imagine that only a fortunate few will ever claim it.

Well, I have a little secret to share: It’s not that difficult. It takes only one win, one successful entry, to make you a bona fide “award-winning writer.” It takes only one prize to give you the right to add those magic words to your resume, your query letters, your bio. And once you’ve achieved it, it’s an honor that can never be taken away.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, thousands of writers want a taste of that same glory. (That’s why writing contests are called “competitions.”) If so many writers have their eyes on the prize, what are your odds of being a winner?

The odds are, actually, surprisingly high — and become even higher when you realize that it isn’t about “odds” at all. Winning a writing competition is not a gamble; it’s not about throwing the dice or drawing the winning card. It’s not a matter of chance. Speaking both as an award-winning writer and a contest judge, I can tell you that the “odds” aren’t stacked nearly as strongly against you as you might think. While it is true that hundreds of writers may enter a single competition, a significant percentage often disqualify themselves before they even leave the gate.

So before I talk about what it takes to win, let’s look at what it takes to lose. As a contest judge, I’ve seen three qualities that guarantee to keep a writer out of the winner’s circle: Arrogance, laziness, and inattention to detail.

Arrogance is that tendency of many writers to suppose, “I deserve to win simply because I’m me. My work is brilliant… because I wrote it.” Such writers imagine that they have no need of improvement, that they cannot possibly fail. They promptly do.

Laziness is often the outgrowth of arrogance. It is the assumption that no particular effort is needed when entering a contest. A lazy entry is typically characterized by sloppy writing, wandering prose, unclear thoughts, lack of polish, and text that suggests the writer has never grasped the concept of a “second draft.” It usually shows problems in areas of grammar, spelling, and punctuation — not to mention proofreading.

Inattention to detail is perhaps the most common issue, and can result in an entry being disqualified before it ever reaches a judge. It includes such sins as failing to adhere to the stated word count; failing to provide the correct materials (e.g., sending rhymed poetry to a contest that specifically precludes it); failing to pay the entry fee; failing to format the entry correctly; failing to have the entry postmarked (or delivered) by the stated deadline; failing to send or e-mail it to the right person or address… the list goes on and on. Quite simply, if a competition states “type your entry on white paper in a 12-point serif font,” entries printed in blue calligraphy on pink paper will be disqualified. Instantly.

If at this point you’re frowning and thinking, “But I would never do any of those things,” well, stop frowning and start smiling. Because if you can honestly say that, you already have an edge on a lot of the competition. The fact is, there are thousands of writers out there who not only would do those things but do them repeatedly.

Now that you know how to avoid instantly losing a competition, what does it take to win? Unfortunately, there is no “formula.” But there are steps you can take to boost your chances (note that I didn’t say “odds”).

1) Choose wisely. My new edition of Writing to Win (you knew the book plug had to get in here sooner or later, right?) offers over 1600 contest listings. That doesn’t mean there are 1600 competitions for you to enter. First, consider the category or genre in which you wish to compete. What area of writing do you consider your strongest? Poetry? Short fiction? Flash fiction? Essay? Memoir? Start your search for contests in the area where you feel your work has the greatest chance of success. Then narrow it by topic. Are you a “literary” writer? Or do you consider your work more “mainstream” or “genre.” If you write science fiction lyric poetry, there are, in fact, several competitions that would like to hear from you — but you can rule out just about any literary magazine on the planet. Next, consider your level of expertise. If you are a relative beginner, consider starting with one of the many sites that offer inexpensive monthly competitions; if you have extensive publication credits, consider some of the organizations that give awards to high-quality published works.

2) Read the guidelines. That should go without saying, but for the cadre of writers who fail due to “inattention,” it can’t be said often enough. Or perhaps it’s just a waste of breath to say it at all. But that’s not you. You read the instructions. You pay attention to what contest organizers are looking for, both in terms of content and submission guidelines. At the same time, try not to get frustrated with the many competitions that say nothing more enlightening than “send up to three poems” or “send us your best work.” When you see those, take the next step…

3) Read the winning entries. Many competitions post winning entries online, or compile them in a booklet or PDF file. Some publish them in their magazine, which may also be available online. If such entries are available, there’s no excuse for not knowing what is most likely to catch a judge’s eye in a particular competition.

Then, ask yourself, honestly, whether you can envision your work sharing space on the same page. In some cases, you may be asking, “Can I write this well?” In other cases, you might think, “Is this the best they could get? I could write circles around this, in the dark, with one hand.” But be cautious! It’s easy to assume that the winner was the best of a bunch of unspeakably awful entries. But a more likely possibility is that the judge actually really LOVED that entry. He didn’t think it was the best of a bad lot; he thought it was wonderful. And if the judge thought that entry was wonderful, chances are he won’t like yours.

4) Learn more about the judges. Back in the days when my sister was involved in dog-showing, she and her friends spent as much time discussing the characteristics of the judges as of the dogs. While everyone thought they had “winning” dogs, they knew that beauty was in the eye of the beholder; thus, it was important to find out who the “beholder” was going to be.

Writing competitions are no different. While some competitions have guidelines that assign points to various characteristics (e.g., style, grammar, theme), in the end, it boils down to a judge’s personal preference. I liked this entry better than that one. That entry didn’t “grab” me; this one did. Part of your research involves trying to find out what is most likely to “grab” the attention of whomever is judging the competition. Read the bios of the judges. Visit their websites, if possible, or find some other way to read their work. Read their comments on previous years’ entries, if they’ve judged the competition in the past. Find out what floats their boats. And never, ever assume that your entry is going to be the one that changes a judge’s mind about, say, rhymed poetry or humorous memoirs (see my comment on arrogance, above…).

5) Submit your best work. That should go without saying, but I’ve judged competitions where writers could submit an unlimited number of entries — and did. That’s not submitting your best work; it’s shot-gunning a contest and hoping something will stick. (It also means that you’re competing against yourself!) Rarely does this approach work. Worse, it means that a judge ends up reading a bunch of entries that sound pretty much the same — making that judge more likely to choose something that comes across as “different” from the herd.

This means refraining from knocking off a piece in the morning and submitting it that afternoon. It means re-reading, rethinking, polishing, letting the piece “sit” for a few days and then visiting and polishing it again, until it doesn’t simply shine but sparkles. Don’t aim for a piece that will take the judge’s breath away; write a piece that takes your breath away.

6) Be bold — and honest. Be bold in submitting. If something sparks your interest, give it a shot. Yes, contest fees can add up — but the surest way to never become an “award-winning writer” is to never enter a competition at all. Don’t assume that you don’t have what it takes. Try, try, and try again.

At the same time, be honest with yourself about your level of ability. Assess your entries as objectively as possible. Compare them with the winning entries from previous years, and ask yourself if you would choose your piece over the ones that have already won. If not, don’t stress; instead, look around for another competition that more closely matches your abilities.

Winning prizes is nice, but money is quickly spent. Being able to declare yourself an “award-winning writer” gives your career a boost that lasts a lifetime. Go for it!

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.