How to Improve Your Competition Chances

A description of the common judging process of writing competitions and how to avoid common pitfalls.

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A lot of writers do not seem to understand how competition judging works. As a former judge of the HG Wells Short Story Competition, I have a fair amount of insight into the process. Most of it begins once you have entered. At that point, your entry is written, you have filled in the form, and you have sent it in. You, the writer, no longer have any influence over the competition process.

At the other end, your entry will be sitting in a huge slush pile. For the purposes of this, we will imagine there are 1,000 entries in total. Often, entries are anonymous, in which case they will be assigned a code. This is so judges are not influenced by who the writer is.

The first stage is, effectively, sifting—this is the process used to reduce the slush pile to a manageable volume. Any entries that clearly break the rules, or have ignored them in some way, will be removed. The judges will be actively looking for reasons to remove entries, as judging is a very pressured process. In my experience around half of the entries will be removed as ineligible at this point. If you didn’t break the rules, you are now amongst 500 others.

For the second stage of more detailed sifting, each story will be speed-read in a matter of minutes: the opening and closing few lines will be read properly, and then the rest of the piece will be scanned. Entries will be rejected if the beginning or end feel weak, if the document is poorly-written, if there are spelling or grammar errors, or if the piece comes across as uninteresting or derivative. By the end of this stage, there might be perhaps 100 left. If your entry survived this long, it’s in with a chance of being longlisted.

At the third stage, which is picking the longlist, each entry will be read in depth by the judges. On some occasions every judge will read every story here, on others it will be based on scores or votes. However it works, it is at this point that your entry will be read properly and you get to impress the judging panel. It is now about the quality of your entry. For fiction, considerations will be the novelty of the central idea, the characters, narrative voice, the plot arc, even the stylistic choices of grammar. For poetry, the themes, word choices, rhymes (or lack thereof), rhythms and breaks, and structure will all be weighed. Non-fiction will look at subject, angle, depth and range of perspective, research, readability and reader engagement, and so on. In fact, everything you should be thinking about when reviewing your own work or critiquing others will come into play. This is where the merit of the piece is ascertained, and that process is ongoing to the end of the competition. At this point, you will now be one of around 50.

Stage four, then, is shortlisting. Entries still in the running will face some very detailed reading, and each will be thoroughly pulled apart. This stage may introduce more or different judges and the debate, behind the scenes, really hots up. This is a subjective process and each judge will have an opinion. If you are shortlisted, you could be included in a line-up of 25 or less. I’ve seen some shortlists as low as 5 entries.

If you reach stage five—the final round—your entry will be in the running for the top prize. The judges will likely meet and discuss, at length, the merits of each entry to determine the overall winner and any placed prizes. If you are picked here, you could win.

As you can see, there are a lot of opportunities to be dropped from the running. As a competition judge I’ve seen far too much wasted effort where writers have clearly sweated blood and tears to create what is more than likely an interesting entry, but don’t make it past the very early stages of the competition. The tragedy is that their entry will never have the chance to shine. With little or no feedback, the author won’t even know why or at what stage it was deselected. To prevent that, you will need to adhere to the following:

1. Obey the rules

Rules are not guidelines, they are rules. Competitions vary on their rules. I suggest that you write or print out a checklist before you start working on your entry. Run through it, check that you understand the requirements, and make sure your entry meets the competition criteria. In my experience, at least a quarter of entries are rejected for breaking an obvious rule like font or paragraph requirements, document format, page numbering, or even ignoring the word count. Avoid getting too close to the upper or lower word limits, as some software operates differently and gives a different estimated result.

If the competition asks for anonymous entries, or if the content is supposed to be in a document without your name, or a form field without your name, then make sure you do as asked. So many people fail at this hurdle. Despite asking for anonymous entries, I have seen names included in the header or footer, on a copyright notices at the beginning or end of entries, and even in by-lines below the title. More common is finding a name in the filename, or in a document’s properties. Once, the main character of a short story was named after the writer, which rendered their entry unadmissable. If anonymous entries is specified, or even if a field simply asks for the text or content of an entry only, then including your name will result in swift rejection without your entry even being read. You need to expunge all traces, apart from where it is allowed. Around 10% of entries are rejected because anonymity is ignored.

2. Follow the guidelines

If there’s a theme, write about it. Don’t tangentially allude to it; make it as central as you can. A surprising number of entries are clearly old pieces that have been resurrected and reworked with the theme poorly crowbarred in. Usually this doesn’t work from the point of view of the narrative, but it’s also a sure-fire way route to an early exit because there won’t be a substantial enough link. ‘Theme’ does not mean a single, throwaway mention—it means a sustained reference of some form. If a judge has to look too hard for the theme, your entry could well be rejected as early as the speed-read stage, whereas clever use of the theme will undoubtedly earn brownie-points.

In a similar vein, don’t waste your time writing something that is not allowed, or that’s likely to be badly received. It’s pretty pointless submitting your steampunk novella masterpiece to a romantic short story contest, as much as sending in a haiku won’t win you an epic poetry prize. Entering a sonnet into a flash fiction competition will definitely not work. Some competitions are family-friendly and won’t want to print your erotic werewolf gore-fest—find somewhere more suitable or write something better-suited.

3. Do your best

It should go without saying that you need to take basic steps to ensure your work reaches a good standard of quality. Unfortunately, the evidence I have seen is that many cannot be bothered when entering competitions, which causes frustration for judges. If what you have sent in isn’t the best you can possibly do, it is very unlikely to win.

Cover the basics first: check your spelling and grammar. Proofread your entry several times; if possibly get someone else to do so as well. Not every judge will be a stickler for grammar but you can bet that there will be one somewhere in the chain. If your entry contains basic mistakes there’s a high probability it’ll be out in an early round.

Spend time editing. Look for inconsistencies. Read your entry aloud to yourself. How does it sound outside of your head? Ask yourself questions about it as if you were a judge in a bad mood. Is it engaging? Is the opening as strong as you can possibly make it? Is the end really satisfying?

Do not enter until you’re sick of reading it and you genuinely believe it’s the best you can do.


If you follow this advice, you’ll be one step ahead of many of your fellow entrants, and will dramatically improve your odds of being shortlisted, or even winning. The last thing you want is to have your entry ruled out at an early stage, and ideally you want a better than average chance. What it boils down to is this: follow the rules of the competition and send in a piece of work that you’ve rigorously quality checked and honestly believe is your best. Do that and you’ll have given your entry a fair shot. After that, it’s all down to the judges.

Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.

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