How to Win a Writing Competition—notes from a contest screener
There are more writing contests popping up every year, and a win can net you a bit of cash as well as a shiny resume bullet point. Maybe even better, winning a contest or even making it onto a shortlist is a lovely validation that you’re on the right track. However, the reality is only a few people will make the cut out of hundreds or thousands of entries. You might be tempted to cast a wide net, but it’s also important to approach writing contests with a smidgeon of strategy.
I can’t tell you how to write a golden contest submission, but I can share what wins me over when I’m screening entries, and I can also explain how the screening process works. Armed with this information, you should be able to take your contest hustle up a notch.
“It’s a subjective business”
The interpretation and critique of art is necessarily subjective—of course—but I would argue that subjectivity only becomes a significant factor in the top twenty percent of all unpublished writing. True objectivity belongs to the stars, but here’s a bit of human objectivity based on the thousand or so contest entries I’ve screened: bad writing is objectively bad.
However, my experience as an editor and writing instructor has shown me that bad writing can improve—it can cross that threshold from “hard no” to “hey, you’re doing something interesting here.” We can all learn and get better at our craft.
And there is, in fact, a magic ingredient: intentionality.
What wins me over
Intentionality takes on two forms in fiction (and narrative nonfiction as well).
1. A character with intentional trajectory
This is intention in the Sorkin sense.
“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something. Something's standing in their way of getting it. They want the money; they want the girl; they want to get to Philadelphia — doesn't matter. And if they can need it, that's even better.” —Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin is a screenwriter, but intention and obstacle are just as important to fiction as to film. This doesn’t have to be a blockbuster quest. Character motivation can be subtle. It can also be uncertain, though only for the reader. The writer should know it precisely, and when they do, it appears on the page as authenticity.
2. A story told with intention
A film studies professor once warned me never to speculate about a director’s intent, at least in terms of what meaning they intended to convey with a particular shot or scene. Instead, I was encouraged to interpret what was on the screen and use that as evidence of my argument in an essay.
The reasoning here is that each shot and scene is already purely intentional. It’s planned, set up, recorded, and included in the final cut for a reason—yet you can never prove what the underlying intent really was. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You can only make arguments about what the final presentation communicates, conveys, or implies.
So too in fiction.
Intentionality means a writer has given thought to how they will tell a story and why. Perhaps they have experimented with POV. They have devoted time to planning/outlining or extensive revision or both. They have carefully crafted an opening sentence that implies character, trajectory, or theme. In other words, the story is told in a way that serves the narrative itself.
The process of screening contest entries
Every contest is a bit different, but the process of screening and judging is quite similar. Submissions roll in, screeners sift for the strongest candidates, and judges choose from the final shortlist.
My first screening experience was with a contest put on by the University of Victoria called On the Verge. I helped coordinate the launch, which in many ways we were making up as we went along. All entries came directly to me—poetry, short fiction, and short essays—and I endeavoured to send the ten best from each category to our three judges. A lot of work, but pretty straightforward.
Years later, I became a volunteer for the Malahat Review, UVic’s esteemed literary journal. Their contests are a pretty big deal and they get a lot of entries. A number of screeners work independently to review about ten submissions each. From that list, we can recommend only one entry (or none) for the judge’s consideration.
At the Darling Axe, we run two writing contests per year: The First Page Challenge and An Axe to Grind. I screen all the entries and award-winning author and editor Michelle Barker chooses the winners from a shortlist which has worked out to be about ten candidates per contest.
But how do I decide what makes the cut?
As the entries roll in, I assign them a score of either one, two, or three. A score of one means the story was immersive and engaging; this candidate is tipped for the shortlist, pending a second read. Two means I started out enjoying the submission but something pulled me out or didn’t quite work. Three means the writing lacked intention. In other words, the prose was rough, the dialog clunky, and, most likely, the narrative opened with context (telling) rather than scene (showing).
By the numbers
I’ve been tracking my scoring stats over the last several contests and many hundreds of submissions. Here’s what I discovered: fewer than five percent of entries score a one. The twos account for around thirty percent. The threes usually make up more than sixty percent.
Consider what this means. The majority of submissions are not “contest ready.” It is a rare author who is born with a natural proclivity for self-critique. It’s normal to be really excited about something you’ve written. We have to get excited about our ideas and characters, otherwise there’s no point in showing up at the drafting table. However, it’s critical that we strive to improve, both in terms of our writing AND our ability to assess the intentionality in our own work.
A strategy for winning writing contests
Writing contest wins are great for a writer's resume, and it can't hurt to net some cash for your trouble. You might be tempted to cast a wide net in search of that prize. However, if you enter several contests and your work doesn't surface on any shortlists, consider that a "batch test" and take the piece back to the workshop to consider your next revision—and by revision, I mean overhaul more than tweak.
Most importantly, keep writing. Ours is a craft that requires practice, long consideration, and then reconsideration.