Many authors begin their careers writing short stories to hone their craft before trying to publish full-length books. Entering short story contests can be an effective way to learn how to write a good short story, and winning such contests will make publishers pay more attention when authors submit their book-length manuscripts.
Recently, I was asked to assist in judging a short story contest. The contest was general—no specific theme or topic required. Authors simply had to submit a piece of fiction that did not exceed 2,500 words. I was not a final judge, but a “weeder,” one who helped “weed out” the good from the bad and decide which twenty stories would go to the finalist round.
I was initially excited about helping to judge the contest. However, with a few exceptions, I was quickly bored and disappointed by the entries. While our Reader Views Literary Awards occasionally receive poorly written books, most authors who write a full-length book have basic writing skills. Short story contests, however, attract a wider range of writers from high school students to polished and published authors. Many of the entrants are hoping to win to further or jumpstart their writing careers so beginning writers are more typically entrants.
Here are a few tips for authors to make their short stories stand out and be noticed by contest judges. Surprisingly, while quality writing is essential, many of the short stories I judged made the cut because the other entrants simply showed lack of common sense and an inability to follow instructions.
Pay the Contest Fee
Most contests have a fee to enter. These fees might be as little as $5.00 or as much as several hundred dollars. In any case, if you’re going to enter you have to pay the fee. In the contest where I assisted, we had several entrants who did not pay the fee. We still took the time to read the stories, and then we contacted those whom we thought were deserving of going to the final round to ask them to submit the fee. However, we only had a few who didn’t pay so it was not a big issue. Many contests receive hundreds of entries and no one wants to waste time chasing down people to pay a fee or holding up the process while waiting for a check to come in the mail. I daresay with most contests, if no entry fee accompanies the story, the story immediately goes into the reject pile.
Follow Submission Instructions
Contests, in order to be fair, must judge the contestants anonymously. As a result, most stories are submitted with a cover sheet with the author’s name on it, but the story itself should only have a header with the story title and not the author’s name. The cover sheets are for administrative purposes and removed from the stories to prevent judges from favoring contestants they know. Failure to follow this simple manuscript submission process can also result in rejection simply because it gives the author an unfair advantage over the other contestants if the judges know the author.
Abide by the Word Limit
The contest I helped to judge had a 2,500 word limit. Word limits are imposed by contests for practical reasons. Usually the story ends up being published, and if in paper publication, only so much space is available. Furthermore, it is easier to organize the contest if the judges expect to receive 100 stories of the same length than 100 that range from 100 words to novel length. Even judges only have so much time in a day, and it takes a long time to read all those stories. Most contests will ask the entrant to put the word length on the cover page. If you wrote your story with Microsoft Word, then go under the Tools menu to check the Word Count. Don’t go over by even one word. Play by the rules.
That said, I was surprised not only by the number of stories that obviously were over the word count but the ones way below it. Many of the entries were less than 1,000 words. They simply did not have the plot and character development of the longer stories so they could not compete against the others. Try to stay relatively close to the word limit, within a few hundred words at least.
Know the Publication
If you’ve never entered this contest before and never read any of the past winning stories or any of the publication where the winning story will be published, you have less chance of winning. You don’t have to subscribe to the publication, but most publications will have a website where you can read past issues or the contest itself will have a website where you can read past winning stories. Reading the previous winners will give you some idea of what kind of story is likely to win.
Look at the writing styles of the last several winning stories. If they are not flowery but your story is, you probably aren’t going to succeed. Same with foul language—if the publication is geared toward conservative readers, strings of swear words and steamy sex scenes are unlikely to please the readers so the judges will be less likely to consider your story.
Know the Genre
Has a Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy story ever won the contest? If not, but that’s what you write, chances are you aren’t going to win. That said, if your story is really good, it’s not impossible, but if realism seems to be the trend for past winners, you may want to submit a more realistic story. If realism isn’t your style, find another contest that is for fantasy stories.
I can’t tell you how many stories we received with talking animals, fairies, and vampires, and they were all cheesy and bad rip-offs of fantasy and horror films. Since this particular contest has always given the prize to realistic stories, fantasy and horror stood little chance, but there are plenty of contests that are looking for this kind of work and where you’re more likely to find the readers you want to jumpstart your writing career. I’m not implying that realistic stories are better than fantasy—they are simply different types of writing with different audiences.
Follow Basic Grammar and Punctuation Rules
Talk about horror stories. We received stories that were three pages long but all one paragraph. And then there were the stories where there were no separate paragraphs or even quotation marks to show who was speaking. And I couldn’t even have counted the typos in some of them. These kinds of errors and failure to know basic mechanics of grammar and punctuation were the biggest reason why stories were rejected for the final round of the contest.
Learn If You Lose
The problem (and benefit) with entering short story contests is that only one person wins. If you don’t win, read the story that did win. Perhaps your story is better but this other story just happened to be what the judges were looking for or what they prefer to read. In the case of the contest I helped to judge, the winning story was not in my opinion the best story, but it was the one the majority of the judges liked.
Whether or not the winning story is better than yours, read it, analyze it, learn from it. Maybe you’re a better writer stylistically but your content was not as good, or vice-versa. Most contests don’t offer feedback to contestants, but if you really want to know, it doesn’t hurt to ask where you ranked in the judging.
Keep entering contests. A story that doesn’t win one contest might win another and you can always keep rewriting and resubmitting the story until you do win. Writing short stories is an effective way to become a better writer, and a couple of wins under your belt will help to make publishers take notice when you submit that novel.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.