I don’t have a winning recipe for winning writing competitions, even though I’m the Competitions Manager for the Association of Christian Writers (ACW). I do have a bit of insider knowledge, though.
Most comps set out strict rules regarding a deadline, formatting and how a story must be submitted. Try and get these right, but, if, after you’ve sent it, you realise you’ve done it slightly wrong, don’t lose any sleep over it. The number of times I, as competition manager, have hunted out someone’s contact details, for instance. Maybe I wouldn’t be saying that if I were running the Bath Fiction Award or the Brighton Prize, but most comps are smaller scale. Broadly speaking, there are three absolutes:
- You must keep within the stipulated word count (maximum and minimum)
- You must not put your name in the header or footer of your story (if you are asked not to, which is most of the time)
- You must pay the entry fee (if there is one)
- You must submit before the deadline (but then, if you’re a few minutes late, sub anyway and see what happens).
How entries are presented is very important. Don’t look like an amateur, by, for instance, indenting paragraphs using the spacebar or trying to centre a heading using the spacebar. Even so, if a story is good enough, some (but not all) judges will overlook bad formatting. Run a spell check and proofread; few judges will excuse bad English.
Don’t be afraid to enter prestigious comps, like the Bath and the Brighton. Newcomers have been known to win the biggies. The only thing that may make we writers pause for thought is the entry fees, which can mount up – although there are many free comps.
Now, this is the shocking bit. In my opinion, whether my or your story wins a comp, or not, depends on opinion – judge’s (or judges’) opinions. Where there have been two judges, frequently they don’t agree on a winner – initially – until they’ve had many more discussions and probably assessed the stories on a marking scheme. They get there eventually, and I don’t find this shocking at all, actually.
Still, statistically, we are unlikely to win. So what’s the point?
- It’s the taking part, getting your story into the sort of state where it can be entered for a comp, tidying up loose ends ,laying it out in the format required, and submitting it to the required deadline. The required kick up the back side!
- Even if we don’t win first prize, getting a mention is a massive boost to one’s writing confidence. I’ve been short-listed and long-listed in a few comps, with Words With Jam, Alfie Dog Fiction and WordsMag. In 2015, Julie O’Neill (of Julie Wow or Wittering blog) and I were long-listed, then short-listed, for the Alfie Dog International Short Story comp. For about a week, we were comparing notes on email. In the end I came fourth and she fifth. For days afterwards, I was walking on air and I expect she was too (although she doesn’t live near me).
- In many comps, you are allowed, for a modest fee, to request a critique – a professional opinion. Well worth it, in most cases.
- Your name gets known. In your critique, you may get comments along the lines of ‘We remember you entered last year… This year’s story shows progress.’
And it’s not a big deal when it doesn’t work out, when the long-list appears with nothing resembling our names on it. (Am I the only one who scans lists for names that look a bit like mine, the names beginning with R, for instance?) We move on, have a cup of tea and enter the next comp.
By the way, can you write funny stuff? Good. Right. You’ll want to know about the Association of Christian Writers’ Comedy Writing comp. All you need to do is to write a comedy script (1000 words) or a humorous poem (24 lines), on the theme Bringing a Little Sunshine. It’s not being launched officially for about a month, but there’s nothing to stop you starting writing now.