Contests, Part VI: The nitty-gritty

Hello, all —

I took yesterday off, because — as my bank manager kept assuring me in harried tones — it WAS a legal holiday. Don’t blame the banks for not being open; blame Congress. But now I am back, raring to go on my ongoing holiday present to my readers, an exploration of ways in which you can increase your chances of winning literary contests.

Last week, I went over questions you should ask yourself before you enter a contest. Entering every contest for which your work is remotely qualified is surprisingly common, and can cost the unwary entrant hundreds of dollars per year in entry fees alone, not to mention the significant expenditure of time, postage, and anxiety. It adds up. So paring back to only those contests that are most likely to serve you is definitely a smart move.

Once you’ve picked your contest, it all comes down to the writing, right? The best writing invariably wins, doesn’t it?

Well, not always. As both a veteran contest-enterer (and winner) and an experienced contest judge, I am here to tell you, an AWFULLY high percentage of entries rush to disqualify themselves within the first couple of pages — and I’m going to tell you how.

Self-disqualifying entries tend actually to be welcomed by contest organizers, because they take up so much less time and effort to evaluate, resulting in a smaller contestant pool. In other words, the first screeners in almost any contest are LOOKING for reasons to disqualify your entry.

Don’t give them the chance.

If you are going to enter contests, the first premise you need to accept is that it is an inherently nit-picky business — and it’s your job to make sure you have followed every nit-picky rule set out by the contest requirements. Impeccably.

Obviously, it would be generous-hearted of contest organizers and judges everywhere to gloss over, say, the odd typo or the entrant who feels it artistically necessary to print some portion of the entry manuscript single-spaced, if the quality of writing is high. But think about it: if you have been handed fifty entries to read in your spare time (screeners and first-round judges are almost invariably volunteers), and you could toss aside twenty-eight of them after a page or two, wouldn’t you start disqualifying entries on technical grounds?

I’ll take your murmured “yes” as given.

What does this mean, from the entrant’s point of view? That this is not a forum where good-enough is going to fly. Even the best conceivable writing is not going to stand a chance if it is not technically perfect. The competition is not amongst all entries, but amongst those who have first passed the technical bar.

Within the context of a contest, technical perfection is measured by two things: adherence to what the individual judge reading your entry believes to be standard industry format for the genre (which I shall discuss tomorrow) and WHAT THE CONTEST RULES HAVE ASKED ENTRANTS TO DO. Of the two, the latter is far and away the most important.

Pay attention now, because I’m only going to say this once: THE SINGLE BEST THING YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING OR PLACING IN A CONTEST IS TO FOLLOW THE STATED RULES TO THE LETTER. Even the ones that seem arbitrary, or even stupid, because (as I mentioned last week), the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries.

This is just common sense, if you’re trying to maximize disqualifications: almost every writer who has ever taken a writing class or read a writers’ publication knows work should be double-spaced, for instance, but no one spontaneously places his first chapter and a synopsis in a bright blue folder, having first made the left-hand margin 1.5 inches to accommodate the brad, and makes sure that the name of the work, page number, and name of the contest is in the upper right margin in 10-point type. (A real set of contest requirements, incidentally.) Such an array of demands is brilliant, from a weeding-out point of view: the first-round judges don’t even have to open a folder that is, say, purple or navy, nor do they have to take the time to read entries with 1-inch left margins.

Is that rumbling noise I’m hearing out there the sound of everyone who has ever entered a contest with such requirements leaping to his feet and crying, “Wait — you mean they might not have READ my entry? After they cashed my $50 check?”

It is very, very possible, alas.

Now, most contests have far less restrictive requirements, but most of the time, even the most liberal contest judge will be REQUIRED to reduce the rating of an entry that violates even one of the basic rules as stated in the entry requirements. In other words, it can be the difference between making the finals and not. The most common rule violations:

Neglecting to add a slug line (the title of the work and page number, located in the top left-hand corner) on EVERY page;

Shrinking the typeface so that the submission fits within the stated page limits (oh, come on — you didn’t think they’d notice that your submission was shrunk to 91%, when it is surrounded by submissions printed in 12-point type?);

Not numbering the pages (VERY common);

Non-standard margins.

If you have ever committed any of these sins, you can raise your chances of making it to the finalist round exponentially through one simple act: never make any of these mistakes again.

You would be astonished — at least, I hope you would be — at just how few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the formatting requirements. Often, these rules are buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, dig them out. Follow them as if your life depended upon it. And if you find yourself too sorely tempted to skip any specific requirement listed — such as, say, the information that must appear on the title page, another often-fudged requirement — save yourself some time and money, and just don’t enter the contest. Use the money to take a writing class, or to enter another contest, because if you don’t follow the rules, your chance of winning plummets to practically zero.

Again — it’s not the judges’ fault that entries get ruled out on technicalities; in most contests, the judges are not given any wiggle room. I remember only too well reading a truly well-written entry in a contest where I was a first-round judge (no, I can’t tell you which contest). It was an interesting story told from two POVs, and personally, I would have liked it to advance to the finals. However, it had one big technical problem: the contest rules had specified a single typeface throughout, and the author of this entry had chosen to use different typefaces for each of the POVs. So, unfortunately, I had to recommend that it be disqualified.

I felt terrible for a week, but what could I do? It would have been knocked out unread at the next level, anyway, and if I had pushed for an exception, it would have damaged the chances of the other excellent entries that I was able to send to the next round.

Not all judges or screeners are so tender-hearted, of course: many report becoming downright angry after reading the fourth or fifth entry that doesn’t follow the rules. Believe me, when you are relying upon the personal preferences of a judge, the last thing you want to do is annoy her.

Trust me, if you follow the rules to the letter, yours will be in the minority of entries. The bigger the contest, the more it will shine. Be memorable for good reasons, not for bad ones.

Just how common is it to ignore the rules? Well, back in my graduate school days, I used to teach discussion sections in gargantuan undergraduate lecture classes. After each test, the teaching assistants (for such we were called) would get together and set out grading criteria. What did each student need to say in order to answer each question at an A level? A B level? And so forth. We’d get together again after grading to compare how our students did. Invariably, the graders’ most oft-repeated complaint: what we came to call RTFQ!

It stands for Read The Question! (The additional F was an unspoken bow to the graders’ annoyance the thirtieth time they saw the same mistake.) There is something about a timed test that apparently makes students skip the vital step of reading the exam question carefully, to figure out what precisely they are being asked. Oh, they skim it — but in the skimming, they usually miss some crucial element of the question. Their grades go down accordingly.

In my experience, the mere necessity of meeting a contest entry deadline tends to have the same effect upon entrants. They skim the rules, or ignore them altogether. And it is disastrous for them.

So please, for my sake, sit down well before the contest deadline and make a checklist of the contest’s requirements. Check it twice, just like Santa does, for accuracy. As you complete the requirements and stuff the constituent parts of the entry into the envelope, check them off. Then, before you seal the envelope, pull the whole entry out again and read it over to make absolutely certain that you have met every tiny, nit-picky technical requirement. Then you can seal the envelope and rush it to the post office to get it postmarked by the deadline.

You can’t be first across the finish line if you are disqualified in the first lap, my friends. Be extremely careful, and your chances of contest victory will rise.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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