Increasing your chances, part II: the triumph of the nit-picker

Yesterday, I was talking about the predictable frequency with which contest entries are knocked out of finalist consideration purely for reasons of format: specifically, for reasons of standard format. Because, when it comes right down to it, a contest entry, like a manuscript submitted to an agent or editor, should NOT slavishly resemble a published book. Manuscripts have rules, and you will be better off if you follow them.

I know my long-time readers have seen these words so often here that the syllables have probably burned themselves into their retinas, but ignorance of standard format is, due to its instant recognizability to industry insiders, invariably one of the top reasons any agent will cite for why manuscripts are rejected, and THE top reason contest judges give. The reason for this, most of the time, is simple unfamiliarity with the norms of the industry. So until every single aspiring writer within visual range of my blog is aware of it, I am going to keep harping on the matter, thank you very much.

I implore you, for your own sake: unless a contest’s rules or an agent’s requests specifically tell you otherwise, NEVER submit ANY pages ANYWHERE that are not in standard manuscript format. Simply put, it is the difference between your work’s looking professional and not.

Note that “unless” clause, however. If a contest’s rules tell you to print everything in purple ink, with 2-inch margins, and in a typeface legible only to readers on the Planet Targ, do it. And do it without fudging, because, as I said yesterday, entries that ignore such directives stand no chance of winning.

Rather clearer when it’s put that way, isn’t it, than the often bizarrely prolix wording of contest entry forms? What do these organizations do, have them written by the same good folks who write the instruction manuals for DVD players?

Here is another little piece of advice that will increase your chances of reaching finalist status exponentially: before you start preparing your contest entry, sit down and read the rules through twice. Admittedly, these rules are frequently buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, dig them out. After you’ve had a good chuckle at their esotericism, take a nice, clean sheet of paper and make a checklist of every requirement, no matter how small or self-evident.

Actually, ESPECIALLY these. The small and self-evident ones are actually the most often missed.

Then read the rules again, to make sure you didn’t miss anything. This list is your lifeline in climbing the contest mountain: you need to be absolutely sure that it will not fail. Have some trustworthy soul – a clergyman, your best friend, a city council member, whoever’s at hand – read the rules and your checklist side-by-side, to assure their remarkable similarity.

Once you are positive it is accurate, follow this checklist as if your life depended upon it. As you go through the process of preparing your submission, tick off each requirement. After you have finished, go back and double-check that you have indeed done each of the things on the list. Finally, give the rules one last gander just before you seal the envelope: is it possible that you missed anything?

Does this advice seem to be advising a level of self-scrutiny bordering on the obsessive-compulsive? Good; you have the right idea. Because, as any contest judge who has read even a handful of entries can tell you – or would tell you, if confidentiality agreements did not forbid it — few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the requirements in their entirety.

Frankly, from the judges’ perspective, this can be downright depressing. 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, beautifully-written story told from two POVs, and personally, I would have been overjoyed to see to advance to the finals. However, it had one big technical problem: the contest rules had specified the use of a single typeface throughout, and the author of this entry had chosen to use different typefaces for each of the POVs. So, unfortunately, despite well-nigh perfect scores in every other category, 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 positively angry after reading the fourth or fifth entry that doesn’t follow the rules. Try not to blame the judges too harshly for this — it’s not their fault that entries get ruled out on technicalities; in most contests, scorers are not given much, if any, wiggle room. And, charming people that these volunteers tend to be, each of them would honestly like to be the first person who read the winning entry and cried, “My God! This is brilliant!”

Just how common is it to ignore the rules? Well, let me put it this way: 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.

And so it is with contest-entry pressures, evidently: the mere necessity of meeting a contest entry deadline tends to have the same panic-inducing effect upon entrants. They skim the rules, or ignore them altogether. And it is disastrous for them.

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.

And that renders entering just a waste of your time and money. But if you’re in it to win, you need to start thinking, not just like a writing professional, but like a contest judge.

This contest judge is here to tell you: if you follow the rules to the letter, yours will be in the minority of entries, and the bigger the contest, the more it will shine. So have a little mercy upon all of those nice judges out there, sit down well before the contest deadline and make a checklist of the contest’s requirements. Check it twice, just like Santa, to make absolutely certain that you have met every tiny, nit-picky technical requirement. Then you can seal the envelope and drive like a maniac 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!

2 Replies to “Increasing your chances, part II: the triumph of the nit-picker”

  1. My concern is not being able to unambiguously decipher various contest rules. For example, PNWA says to number all but the \’first page\’ of the submission. If I include a title page, does that mean the first page of actual writing does not get numbered? And, since there are both a synopses and chapter which each have a first page, do I skip numbers on both those pages? I have no problem being obsessive-compulsive. I just get carried away in the panic that my entries will be disqualified. Thanks for this series. The more specific you can be for formatting, the better it will be for folks like me. Take care.

    1. Anonymous, this is a great question. I just took another gander at the PNWA’s rules, and they are genuinely confusing on this point. As we move closer to the entry deadline, perhaps I shall post all the rules and decipher them.

      To set your mind at ease, title pages are never numbered, under any circumstances, and they are never included in the pagination. Nor do they count toward the contest’s page limit.

      What the PNWA means here is the first page of text in the entry — and, although they do not say so, the underlying assumption is that this will be the first page of text proper, rather than the synopsis. If you choose to place your synopsis first in the packet, go ahead and leave the page number off that page.

      However, old schoolers like it to come at the end, on the theory that then, the contest judge is forced to judge the writing first and book’s premise second. Not a bad idea. If you decide to do it in this order, DO number the synopsis’ first page, just like the rest of it.

      I’m glad you brought this up, and I shall revisit it in blog form!

      And everybody, please feel free to post anonymously from time to time: I would MUCH rather that these questions were asked than not. (Fair warning, though: the blogging program is set up to allow those who have already posted comments to return without moderation, so it may take me a few hours to catch it and switch it to anonymous mode. But I’m usually pretty quick.)

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