Would you enter a writing competition for fame or for prize money? It’s neither for me. That’s not to say that I don’t want fame or money. I want both but they are not my main reasons for entering writing competitions. the most important reason that I participate is for practice and feedback. When I place in a contest or receive many positive comments from judges and other participants, I feel validated. I also find the judges’ criticism and suggestions invaluable for improving my writing skills and process.
Writing to a Competition’s Prompts
Writing competitions often give prompts that must be included in the entries. These might seem daunting at first, not relevant to each other or to you and your life experiences. Maybe you will be required to write in a genre or style that you’ve never written, or even read! It’s up to your imagination to create something around these prompts that satisfies the contest judges.
Is that your first reaction to a prompt? Mine, too. My process begins with a walk outside (weather permitting) for about 15-minutes or so, then I make a cup of coffee and start writing.
First, I write the prompts at the top of a page with the required word count or limit. My next step is to brainstorm a list of ideas. Sometimes I set a timer or decide to fill a page, and sometimes I just stop when I like an idea.
I often write multiple first drafts.
How is that possible? Isn’t the draft after a first draft called a second draft? No, not if it’s a different story. If I start to write and find that the story idea isn’t working, I move on to a different idea. Thus it’s another first draft.
Save each of the discarded first drafts for future projects.
Every time I attend a writing class or workshop, I learn something new. The most repeated advice I’ve heard is to finish your first draft without self-editing. There will be time to fix it up after you have the “bones” of your story. Even though I agree with this advice, I still catch myself editing as I write.
Saving your Work
Every time I make a series of changes, I save the document with a consecutive number. For example, I will have a folder named with the working title of my story. Inside will be all of my drafts, like this:
- and so on…
For short stories, I usually have at least twenty drafts saved by the time I’m finished. This folder comes in handy. I might write a sentence, delete it in one draft, but want to put it back in another draft. I can go back and find that sentence instead of wracking my brain trying, usually in vain, to find it.
Follow the Competition Guidelines
Read all of the guidelines and rules for the competitions carefully. Watch your word count. Include the prompts! Use the required font and format. Include the prompts! Don’t forget the title and your bio, if required. Include the prompts!
Did I say, “Include the prompts?”
Writer’s groups, critique groups, and trusted family or friends can help tremendously. Do not post your story on your blog or another public forum. If there’s time for submitting to a private online group, I will do that. If not, I ask my in-house beta reader to read it.
To help him be more objective, I give him specific things to look for, such as sentence structure and grammar, and I show him the prompts. I ask him to point out places in my writing that are confusing, repetitive, or seem to need more information. Whether the story appeals to him matters but isn’t of high importance (don’t tell him I said that). Not all readers will like the genre or topic of your story.
For me, there’s nothing like the printed page to expose problems with the text of my stories. I always print the “final draft.” I read it, making notes and changes directly on the paper. After fixing it in my document, I check it again.
If you have time left before your deadline, walk away and do something else (for at least thirty minutes) before re-reading and calling it a “final, final draft.”
Not for the faint of heart, submitting puts you out there. Entering your piece in a competition is exciting and frightening at the same time. Remember that every writer entering is in the same boat, working with unfamiliar prompts, maybe in an unfamiliar genre, and with a tight deadline. Check, double-check, and triple-check… and then let it fly!
Mark your calendar for the notification of results so you don’t have to keep wondering.
It’s Okay to Quit
During the past year, I’ve participated in about a dozen prompt-driven competitions and I only gave up on one of them. The prompt was a sentence that I couldn’t get past in the limited time for writing about it. It’s okay to quit a writing contest, especially when life gets in the way or something else is distracting you—no sense adding to the anxiety. Give yourself permission to quit once in a while. The sponsoring organization won’t mind. They get to keep your entry fee, and it’s one less piece they have to read and judge.
That said, if you find yourself giving up often, perhaps writing competitions are not for you. Take a break from them and re-visit the challenge next year.
Practice Before Entering
If you have never written from a prompt, give it a try. I’m working on a list of writing prompts for a future post. Sign up for my newsletter or follow my blog to find out when it’s been published. Meanwhile, here are a few sites to get you started.
Choosing Writing Competitions
They are everywhere. A basic search online will give you lots of choices. Some are free, and some have entry fees. There are contests with a series of strict rules and some with only a word count. I like competitions that provide feedback from the judges, win or lose (sometimes you have to pay extra for a critique).
Here is a list of writing competitions that I have entered.
- NYC Midnight
- The Writer Magazine
- Flash Fiction Magazine
- Australian Writers’ Centre
- Herd Flash Fiction Competition
- Writers’ Weekly
- On The Premises
Writing to prompts for a competition can be a nerve-wracking experience. If you are up to the challenge, you might learn a lot about yourself and your writing skills.
Have you or are you planning to enter a writing competition? If you have, which one? Share your experience in the comments below.