You Can Score Higher in Writing Contests

One of my current students has finaled in a writing contest. She isn’t the first, but every time one of these writers demonstrates the courage and the will to be a “pro,” I’m ecstatic. Yet as a contest judge, I see a lot of the same mistakes again and again.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways to earn higher scores from contest judges?

  • Know the Rules. If you submit in a different format or with Track Changes or your personal info still embedded in your document, you’ll be out before you’ve had a chance to impress. Take it from me, you’ll want to check and recheck your document. If you write in Word 07 or higher, these changes aren’t as easily removed as in earlier versions. You must SELECT ALL and then accept all changes, remove comments and as an extra precaution, I copy into a new doc. Also be sure you use the correct font, point size and margins, etc. And don’t forget headers/footers!
  • Get Into the Action! The number one thing I see contest entrants do is to have a slow opening. A character stares out of a window, thinks about her life. A character is “driving to the story,” by bus, train, plane or car. Fast forward your first scene or two and find the place where the dialogue and action begin. Pull that to the opening or near to it.
  • Don’t Rely on Dialogue. Another pattern I often see is that of forcing the dialogue to do most or all the work of the story. New writers often describe a scene at its beginning and then allow talking heads, speeches or information-loading to take over. Dialogue is a powerful tool, but use it wisely. For help, see my posts on the Rule of 3.
  • Strengthen the Stakes. Even if you already know the story goal is to find the killer or win the suitor, when it comes to a high stakes story, many writers take too many cues from real life. But shouldn’t stories reflect real life? Only if the stakes are high. Your character should have a lot to lose.
  • Go Beyond Your Critique Group. The story becomes more familiar to a reader the more times it’s read. If possible, ask a well-published novelist or writer to read at least your opening. Unless your critique group is pretty advanced, they may either zoom in on details or else (with the best of intentions) argue for changes to the story that you might not be 100% in favor of. Ask an editor or even a friend who is well-read to just give you an impression–not line edits–of the story. And GOOD LUCK!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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