Confessions of a Contest Judge:  Tips for Becoming a Finalist

By Leslie J. Hall

For a writer, winning a contest can be the thrill; the validation and encouragement we need to keep writing.  How does a writer submit a manuscript that can rise above all the other entries to be a winner?

Submitting your work to a contest is very similar to submitting your work to an editor or agent.  Think of a contest submission as your practice ground.  First you need to write something spectacular.  The number one most important rule for contest entries is to submit something original, something memorable.

I have been in charge of the PNWC Adult Contest and have been a reader for several years in both the Adult and High School Contests, as well as other contests associated with northwest writing groups.  Every time I receive a new stack of manuscripts, I feel a sense of giddy anticipation.  Which will be “the one”?  Which one will jump up and “hook” me?  In most cases, I was disappointed.  More often then not, all the submissions were good.  But none of them stood out, none of them grabbed me, none of them were extraordinary. 

As you are considering submitting to a contest, instead of pulling just any piece of writing out of your file, pick something or write something that is your most original work.  Unfortunately, creativity and originality aren’t something I can teach you.  You will feel it when it is right.  Keep in mind that you don’t know who will be reading your work.  Many times you have to get through a screening process before the final judge reads your submission.  Without sacrificing your originality, select something somewhat generic—this is not the time to offend, or anger a potential reader or judge.  I would stay away from excessive violence, swearing, and eroticism.  Follow your gut.  And also follow the rules.

Follow The Rules

The easiest way of improving your chances of becoming a finalist, is to follow the contest rules.  It may seem obvious, but many contest entries don’t make it to the final round because the writer didn’t follow the printed rules.  While breaking a rule may not disqualify you all together, it will cost you in an overall rating. 

Most contests are anonymous and request that your name does not appear on the manuscript.  Follow whatever instructions are given for titling your piece and submitting the extra 3 X 5 card (or whatever is required) to identify you as the author.

If the contest has a page or word count limit, stick to it exactly.  The limits are set for specific reasons (sanity of the judges being one) and there is no excuse for not complying.

Most contests have margin guidelines and suggest a font size/type.  Do not try and cheat the page limits by adjusting margins.  This is not the time to test out one of the hundreds of fonts that came with your computer.  Choose standard 1” to 1 ¼ inch margins (or whatever the rules request) and a generic font like Courier or Times Roman in 12 point.  Make your manuscript as clean, professional, and easy to read as possible.  A contest judge, like an editor or agent, has to read through a pile of manuscripts and the easier the read, the better.  Clean and professional also means no typos or spelling/punctuation/grammar errors.  Don’t lose valuable rating points by submitting an unpolished piece.

If the contest has a theme, use it.  Incorporate it into your work.  When reading a batch of contest entries that all creatively use the suggested theme, then reading one that doesn’t, makes that piece stand out like a red flag.  This may not disqualify you from the contest, but you could lose valuable points.

Polishing Your Submission

Many writers reaches a point where they need some outside feedback on their work.  As you are preparing to submit a piece of writing to a contest, consider getting an outside review of your work.  You can hire a professional editor, connect with a local writing teacher or join a critique group.  Get someone who is knowledgeable about writing.  Your submission can only be improved by listening to someone’s advice.  But remember, listen to suggestions but make your own decisions about changes to your own work.  Be open to constructive feedback.

Make a Contest Work For You

Winning a contest, whether it be a small local contest, a regional writers conference contest (like PNWC), or a national magazine contest is something, you can add to your writer’s resume.  A beginning writer who is lacking in publishing credits, can use a contest win as a way to gain credibility.  An editor or agent will recognize that someone has seen your work and deemed it of value.  I have gained lots of interest in my work because of a contest award.  That’s how I got my first agent!

Are you ready to submit?  Remember this:  be original, submit a clean, polished manuscript, follow the rules, and write the most creative, memorable piece you can.  That alone will put you above most of the other contest submissions.