How to Approach Competitions

Five tips on how to tailor writing for competitions.

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I’ve entered three short story competitions this year and have one more to go, with a deadline in two weeks. I’ve two stories already mostly written for this final competition. I started writing long before the competition and had them mostly finished, so really it’s been a question of editing while filling in the gaps and finding decent endings for them. I’ll then select my favourite to submit.

Although these final two stories are mostly written, it feels like I’m crawling to the finish to find the energy. Five stories in one year is clearly my limit. It might be over my limit. I can come up with ideas and write a lot of words but taking stories to a finished state takes far more effort. Thankfully there’s been a morale boost today: I was longlisted for one of the competitions I’ve entered.

None of the competitions has reached its shortlist stage yet, so nothing is yet lost and I need to extract as much motivation from this longlisting as possible. And though no one will deny the urge to be crowned first, being longlisted is good in and of itself. It means one or more people read your story and understood your intent to the point of extracting it from a pile of other writing.

Last year I only entered two competitions, so perhaps next year I’ll enter more than four. The thing with competitions is the amount of variation they involve, I’ve written pieces for each that are all very different in style in order to fit their themes. This is exhausting, because you don’t simply be yourself. (Even if there isn’t a named theme you still often gain a sense of what the competition is looking for in terms of style/genre by who has won before and how the competition is being judged.)

I told Melissa Todd (Managing Editor at Thanet Writers), and she put it into an essay of hers, that I view each story entered into a competition as part of a possible future collection rather than simply a competition entry. This remains true and sometimes I will ignore the instinct to tailor my writing for a competition and its judges, but this isn’t typically the case.

As with editing a work to be entered into a competition, so I have it in mind to edit the stories again should I ever collect them in a book. I never feel they are completely done with or perfect for every context in which they might be presented.

What do I mean by tailoring? Well, I keep the following in mind for competition entries:

1. The judge’s time is limited. It is no good presenting to them a story which takes time to digest or understand, or one that will require several re-readings
2. A theme or prompt will be addressed many times over in the most obvious of ways by competition entries, so try to find an obscure angle of approach, but not one so obscure it is difficult to understand the connection to the requirements of the competition
3. If the competition is being judged in part by public vote, be aware of the writing styles which appeal most to the general reader, and don’t attempt anything too complex
4. Attention grab, it’s unavoidable, you don’t want to overdo it but you need to entertain the reader and not let them slip away
5. Don’t approach lightly a genre being judged by a genre writer, take the time to venture inside it. If it’s a historical piece, for example, do your historical research, don’t just wing it.

Do these pointers really work? Good question, I’ve not entered many competitions, so I’m still refining them. I did receive second place in a competition last year, which is a good sign, but none of this is an exact and reproducible science. If you want to improve your chances in competitions you must simply keep trying and keep refining your approach through a mix of finding what works and your instinct of what should work.

The most important thing is that you are writing things that you want to write and which are developing your skill, otherwise you might as well go and spend the competition entry fees on scratchcards.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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