Increasing your chances of winning that contest!

In my just-completed (and oddly non-consecutive) series on picking the right literary contest for you, I suggested a number questions you should ask before you invest the time in entering a contest. Entering every contest for which your work is remotely qualified is a surprisingly common practice amongst aspiring writers, 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.

Like the costs of querying, 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, though, it all comes down to the writing, right? The best writing invariably wins, doesn’t it?

Well, not always. As I mentioned in my last post, many contests are structured to disqualify as many entries as quickly as possible, to streamline the judging process. To narrow the field down to potential finalists, he first screeners in almost any contest are specifically looking for reasons to disqualify any given entry. But, to be fair, the majority of entries do rush to disqualify themselves within the first couple of pages. As both a veteran contest-enterer (and winner) and an experienced contest judge, I’m going to tell you how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

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, and to the letter.

No matter – how shall I put this delicately? – how miniscule, unprofessional, or even downright harmful to all the principles of good writing those requirements actually are in practice. Because if you do not, no matter how excellent your reasons, you don’t really stand a chance of winning.

Naturally, this means you should proofread your entry within an inch of its life: this is not a forum where good-enough is going to fly. Ever, unless you happen to be the final judge’s nephew or favorite bridge partner. 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 standards: adherence to what the individual judge reading your entry believes to be standard industry format for the genre (I shall discuss tomorrow where their notions often deviate from the actual règles du jeu), up to and including an absolute absence of typos, and WHAT THE CONTEST RULES HAVE ASKED ENTRANTS TO DO.

Of the two, the latter is far and away the most important. How important, you ask? Well, do you remember how the Catholic Church felt about folks who ate meat on Friday prior to Vatican II?

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 yesterday) 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.

That’s 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. 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.

Again, try to clear your mind of the notion that this is just a matter of personal nastiness in the readers. Most of the time, even the most liberal-minded 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.

Which means, in practical terms, that whether you read the rules carefully can mean the difference between making the finals and not, even if you are the most gifted writer since Sappho first put pen to parchment. Here are the most common rule violations:

1. Neglecting to add a slug line (the title of the work and page number, located in the top left-hand corner) on EVERY page – or adding a slug line to the first page if the contest rules forbid it.

2. 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 150 other submissions printed in 12-point type?)

3. Not numbering the pages (VERY common)

4. Non-standard margins.

If you have ever even considered committing any of these sins in a contest entry, you can raise your chances of making it to the finalist round exponentially through one simple act: never make any of these mistakes again.

Go forth, my child, and never sin again.

These missteps are, of course, violations against the rules of standard format, too, so their perpetrators are probably not receiving too warm a reception at agencies and publishing houses, either. (Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the proper format for manuscripts is NOT identical to what one sees in published books!) So in enforcing these strictures, contest judges actually are, in their own twisted way, conforming to the standards of the industry. And trying to urge you, if with the subtlety of an anvil dropped upon a foot, to do the same.

Kinda sweet, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about how contest entrants inadvertently violate the more esoteric rules. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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