The one text every literary contest entrant absolutely MUST read — and no, it’s not this blog post (but thanks for asking)

Wouldn’t you know it? I spend days and days of blog time on how to do a synopsis for a contest entry, and I leave out the answer to one of the most basic possible questions: how does one number the pages?

That does it — today’s post is going to be on formatting contest entries.

Let me begin by answering the synopsis question before any of us get even a single minute older: it varies from contest to contest.

Most of the time, contests will simply specify that all pages of the entry should be numbered; some request that the synopsis or other support materials be numbered separately. If the rules say to number the synopsis sequentially with the rest of manuscript, by all means do so: if an entry consists of (in the order they appear) a title page, 24 pages of text, and a 3-page synopsis, the title page would be neither numbered nor counted, the text would be pp. 1-24, and the synopsis would be pp. 25-28. If they call for separate numbering, the title page and text would be the same, but the synopsis would start over at page 1.

Yes, you read that first part of the answer correctly: there is no standard answer to this, nor is there any substitute for going over the contest’s rules with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. In fact, I would HIGHLY recommend going through them with a fine-toothed comb, a nit-pick — and then making a checklist of ALL of the requirements, so you may check them off as you fulfill them.

Actually, if it were my entry, I would go a few steps farther: making the list, checking it twice for accuracy (à la the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) — then photocopying it a couple of times, and not only checking off each item as you complete it on List #1, but going back just before sealing the envelope with List #2, to make sure that you didn’t miss anything in the rush to get the entry envelope-ready.

And perhaps — this was clever reader Tad’s excellent suggestion from a while back — handing List #3 to your significant other, flat mate, tennis partner, or some other sharp-eyed soul who either loves you enough to do you an unpleasantly tedious favor or is otherwise too polite to say no, and ask him/her/them/it to go through and check your entry for required elements.

I’m not just talking about making sure that you actually INCLUDE that synopsis you slaved over for so long, either. I’m also referring to adhering to formatting requirements.

So if you were entering a contest that required a synopsis, your first stop should be to consult the rules, to see if there are special ways they would like to see it formatted. If they do, follow them to the letter.

Do this even if what they are asking is silly, unheard-of, or downright obsolete. Like, for instance, the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s yearly insistence that section breaks should be denoted by at least three centered asterisks, like this:


Now, those asterisks are not entirely without reason: back in the days of typewriters, they were indeed how a writer alerted the manual typesetter to a section break. Now that publishing houses expect writers to turn manuscripts over to them after contract signing in both hard and soft copy, the asterisked section break has gone the way of the horse and buggy: it’s still POSSIBLE to get around that way, but folks on the highway are going to get a might annoyed with you.

So if you were submitting the same page to an agent or editor, you would be best served by its looking like this:


Which only goes to reiterate the point that I keep banging upon, drum-like, every time I bring up the topic of contest entries: contrary to popular belief amongst writers, the sheets of paper you submit to a contest and to an agent or editor should not necessarily be identical.

Yes, you’re going to want to adhere to standard manuscript format, where the rules do not specifically call for something different; since standard format is in fact industry standard (thus the name), contest judges expect to see it. In fact, if an entry is NOT in standard format (other than the little tweaks the contest’s organizers have amused themselves by adding to the rules), it usually loses either presentation or marketability points.

Remember, the judges want the finalists’ work to be market-ready — which means in the format that agents and editors prefer.

Do I hear some disgruntled shifting of feet out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you mutter, “if they’re so hot on marketability, why don’t they just set up the rules so they’re identical with standard format and call it good?”

Ooh, good question, disgusted mutterers. If contest rules were set afresh every year, or even every decade, that would make abundant sense. Because, you see, contest organizers will frequently insist (in feedback, anyway) that the contest’s rules ARE standard format, even when — as in the case of the asterisks — that’s no longer true.

But the fact is, contest rules are NOT revised every year, generally speaking: in the vast majority of cases, the same rules have been used since the contest began, with additions as contest organizers thought of them, entrants objected, logical problems were noticed, and so forth. This is often true, incidentally, even of organizations who update their websites frequently.

I single out no PARTICULAR contest here, of course — but suffice it to say that if I were again entering a Contest-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named whose deadline is next week (on the 22nd, to be precise), I would not only go over the Rules and Guidelines section of their website with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, but also double-check the Category Definitions for EVERY category you intend to enter AND the entry form for minute differences.

I’m not saying that there’s a problem THIS year, of course. But still, it would be an excellent idea to triple-check, as there’s one less judge hanging around those parts who is aware of the problem to point it out to the others, if you catch my drift.

Because, realistically, if a contest judge duns you for not following a regulation that was not prominently displayed in the official rules, there’s not much you can do about it in retrospect. Think of it as the difference between the laws on the books and how a judge interprets them from the bench: you may be right in your interpretation, but the judge is the person in the room with the power to throw others in jail for contempt.

For all practical purposes, while you’re in his courtroom, his interpretation IS the law. This is why we have appellate courts.

Literary contests, however, do not have a Supreme Court to which writers may appeal. (Although it’s an interesting idea.) Unless a contest gives entrants feedback, it’s unlikely that you’d even find out what the particular charges against your entry were.

So read the rules (and all other relevant documents) CAREFULLY, follow them to the letter, and follow standard format where the rules do not specifically tell you what to do. (If you need a refresher on how manuscripts should be formatted, please see the rule-based STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and the more visually-based STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right. And please, if you have questions, ask — I’d much rather that you bring it up here than lose points on an entry.)

For those of you who are more conversant with standard format, let’s play a little game to show how differently an author, a regular reader, and a contest judge might view the same page of text. Here’s that first contest entry page again, an excerpt from EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia: what’s wrong with it, from a judge’s point of view?


Spot anything? Spot many things? (If you’re having trouble seeing the details of the text, try right-clicking on the image and saving it to your desktop.)

This is quite hard; I’ve set a multi-level test for you here. A few hints:

1) There’s an error that would be a disqualification-level offense for almost any contest,

2) a fairly universal pet peeve,

3) a common causer of knee-jerk reactions,

4) a couple of matters of style that would probably have lost Benson a crucial point or two, and

5) a more subtle problem that almost any professional reader would have caught, but most writers would not unless they were reading their own work out loud.

Here’s what the page would look like to a contest judge. The colored bits are the problems, one color per gaffe; I’ve backed up in the text a little, to make the more elusive problem clearer, so now it’s on two pages. (All the better to see standard format in action, my dear.) The one that would get the entry booted is in red.



See ‘em more clearly now? Let’s go through the problems one by one:

1) In an entry, ANY reproduction of the author’s name usually results in instant disqualification. (Yes, even in a memoir.) So quadruple-check that slug line.

2) As the notes in orange point out, these paragraphs are pretty long, and do not necessarily break where the underlying thought does. Also, some of these sentences are pretty lengthy — okay, let’s just go ahead and use that dreaded term from English class, run-on sentence.

Contrary to popular opinion, run-on sentences do NOT make a narrative seem more conversational in tone, at least to your garden-variety contest judge: most of the time, they just look LONG. As do paragraphs more than half a page long. The average contest judge’s heart sinks at the first glimpse of either.

3) Notice the underlined bits in teal — there, the text has fallen into passive constructions. Like many Millicents, most contest judges respond to the passive voice with a negativity that most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, fender-benders, and telemarketing calls. In their minds, the passive voice is pretty much synonymous with poor writing.

It’s not fair, of course; plenty of good writers use the passive voice occasionally, because it can be darned useful. But that’s not an argument you’re going to win in a contest entry. Purge the passivity.

4) If you’re going to use semicolons (pink), make sure that you are using them correctly. In English, ; and is technically redundant, because a semicolon is an abbreviated form of comma + and. So a list should read: Jessamyn gathered armfuls of lavender; bushels of poppies; two thousand puppies, and a bottle of Spray-and-Wash.

Were you surprised to see then show up in color? Most contest entries overuse this word — which isn’t hard to do, as in print, if action A appears in the text prior to action B, it is always assumed that B followed A, unless the text gives some specific reason to believe otherwise. So then is almost always unnecessary, particularly in a list of actions.

5) See all of that blue? It looks like a sapphire inkwell came here to die — and that’s precisely what that much repetition of and looks like to a contest judge. It’s annoying to read, because it is so easy for the eye to stray accidentally from one line to the next. (For an explanation of why this phenomenon is so tiring to the eye, please see my former post on the subject.)

It’s not a bad idea to go through your contest entry with a highlighter, marking all of the ands, for where more than one appears per sentence, you will usually find run-ons. Had I mentioned that people who sign up to judge contests are usually sticklers for grammar?

I know, I know: people do use connective ands instead of periods in spoken English. That doesn’t mean it will work on the page. Trust me on this one — it DOES bug most professional readers and contest judges.

Did that vicious little run-down make you want to shove your contest entry back into the drawer to hide from human eyes? That would be understandable, but I choose rather to view this little exercise as empowering for a writer: your chances of polishing your work to contest-winning shininess is much, much higher if you know BEFORE you seal that envelope just how close a scrutiny the judges are likely to give it.

Is it shallow of me to like it when my readers win, place, and make the finals in contests? Possibly. But if judges react so strongly to textual problems like #2-5, how much more negatively are they likely to respond to an entry that breaks one of the contest’s rules?

Do not assume that your entry will be read by the laid-back, in other words. Read the rules, reread the rules, and FOLLOW THE RULES as if your life depended upon it. If you don’t find yourself waking in the night, muttering that under your breath, the night before you’re planning to drop your entry in the nearest mailbox, I can only advise that your first action the next morning should be to go back and DOUBLE-CHECK THAT YOU HAVE FOLLOWED THE RULES.

And then read the whole darned thing out loud, to weed out possible knee-jerk reaction-triggers. Like, for instance, the first two words of the previous sentence.

More tips to follow, of course. But a quick reminder to those of you who are planning to enter that contest with a deadline next week: my ruminations on entries will in fact be going on past that deadline, as I’m trying not to promote any individual contest this year. All of my trenchant observations on that particular contest from last year, when I was writing directly about it, are still available for your perusal under the CONTEST ENTRY PREP category at right.

Keep up the good work!

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