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5 things to think about when submitting to a writing competition

Warm greetings to you from the slightly chilly dressing table I write at in our flat. Not quite a room of one’s own, but it does the trick. If you saw the interview Linda did with me a month or so ago you’ll know who I am. If not, I’m El Rhodes, I’m an archaeologist and writer of both long and short prose and occasional bits of poetry.  

Over the last two years, my work has been published in a lot of journals and anthologies and I’ve now placed in seventy competitions (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, micro, flash, short story, full-length manuscripts) and won twelve.  

This year I’m teaching nature writing and creative nonfiction at a number of U.K. festivals and for The Crow Collective. Thrillingly, I’m also the 2022 Hysteria Writer In Residence. As part of that, I’ll be writing a blog post each month to help get your creative juices flowing, so that you’re ready to submit to the competition(s) later in the year.  

I’ve read and judged six competitions over the last twelve months and, as it happens, I’ve finished reading for one a week ago. Just like if you read or edit a journal or magazine, reading or judging a competition is a great way to read a lot of prose or poetry and discover what you think works in a piece or what doesn’t. 

But this blog post isn’t about the mechanics of a story or sonnet, or the plot or the pacing (we’ll cover both of these in other blog posts over the course of my residency), it’s about what the competition has asked you to do. And whether you’ve paid attention and given yourself the best chance at a longlisting or more.  

With me so far? Fab. These are my top five things to pay attention to when you’re thinking about submitting to a competition:- 

Themes

  1. If the competition has one, do actually write to the theme or prompt. I’ve been amazed at the number of stories or poems that simply ignored the theme. Didn’t touch it. Not even remotely. Not even with a really generous interpretation.
  1. Some themes occur again and again in submissions to competitions – loss of a family member, grief, dementia, domestic conflict, loosely disguised fanfic romance. I’m not saying don’t write these (I’ve won competitions writing about dementia). But, if you’re going for a well-loved theme your take better be original, or your structure, or your language.
  1. If the competition has a theme (see point 1.) try not to be too obvious in your approach to it. But, if you really want to write about the loss of your goldfish when you were young (lots of pet stories in competitions) then make the language outstanding and do something with all the white space on the page.

Titles 

  1. Use your title. That’s free words, right there. Don’t waste it. Even if it’s not the most inspired title ever, don’t ever leave it blank! Please! And, if possible, make it interact with the story in some way. Think of it as a welcome mat, or an invitation to the piece. Some competitions will disqualify you if you don’t have a title. Don’t chuck yourself on the ‘no’ pile before you’ve even begun. (Feeling despair? Hate finding titles? I’ll come back to titles in a later blog.)

Length 

  1. Write to length – this is a bit controversial, but if you’ve got 100 words, use them. 1000? Use them. Ok. There have been notable exceptions to this, where complete crackers won something and were significantly under the maximum word count. But. The clue here is the word ‘exception’. They were exceptional pieces of writing.

It can be different for poetry, where pieces only twenty lines long might regularly win a repeating competition that advertises a maximum of forty lines.  

But. In general? Write to length. It’s a skill in and of itself that some judges look for. I’d say the only exception is when a competition offers a range – 300 – 750 words? Stick anywhere within the range. But whatever you do, don’t exceed the maximum count. And don’t go below the minimum. Competitions usually don’t make exceptions. 

Layout 

  1. Follow the competition’s instructions about layout, font size, formatting, all of that. If they’ve asked for arial, use Arial, 12 point? Do it. Double spaced? You better. You can draft it in your preferred font, size and layout. But check before you submit and make sure it all fits. Some competitions have a preliminary reader to filter out anything egregious before it gets to the second stage readers or judges.

That’s it.  

If you’ve been reading closely you’ll have spotted I said five tips, and there are actually six. Inconsistencies happen. Different guidance in different parts of the website? Different rules? Something that doesn’t quite add up? Competition organisers are human too. Ask what they actually want. Most organisers will be glad you spotted any problem AND told them. Won’t mean you win, but I’ve been given a free entry for sending a nice email with a question about a glitch early on the day a competition went live. 

Ok. We’re done. Really. I imagine there are a fair few people reading this post who are experienced readers, judges, or veterans of many competitions. Maybe you’ve some tips too? Please let me know.  

As I mentioned above, I’ll be looking at a different writing topic each month. Next month? Getting started on your draft and find ways to revise. 

Find me on Twitter @electra_rhodes

Go here if you want to find out more about the Hysteria Writing Competition

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One Comment

  1. The thing I like most about this piece of advice is how you demonstrate what you’re talking about El, particularly the twist at the end, that’s really clever and neat. Thank you 🙂