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How to Win a Writing Competition

Please welcome Dr. John Yeoman* to the Blood Red Pencil today. John is here to share some tips on improving your chances to win an online writing competition. 

After a disappointing experience with an online contest, John decided to use his expertise as a university tutor in creative writing to offer contest entrants feedback on the stories they submit to his Writer's Village contest. He says, "Just for fun I decided to run a contest where every entrant was awarded marks out of 45, across six publishing criteria, and given a brief practical critique on how their story might be improved. That’s how students are treated on MA (MFA) programs. Why not contestants?"

The criteria John uses in judging the stories entered in his contest is as follows. "I award the highest marks for ‘emotional engagement with the reader’ (a maximum of 10) and ‘originality of concept’ (10), followed by ‘the power of the first paragraph’ (8) and ‘structure, including conflict and closure’ (8). ‘Apt language’ gets 6 and ‘professionalism of presentation’ is 3. The cash prize winners usually achieve 42-43 marks out of 45."

And now, as promised, here are John's tips for increasing your odds to win a contest:

First, rate your own story against the criteria above. Better still, have someone else do it. Judges of other contests probably use a similar system. (And if they don’t reveal their system, how can you trust their qualifications?)

Second, be aware of the three main reasons why stories - which might otherwise have promise - fail to win a prize or get published. I can’t answer for other contests but here are my own big no-no’s:

a. Poor structure. A tale starts slowly or doesn’t start at all. It has too much background. It digresses into pointless incidents and irrelevant dialogue. The close is weak. Readers are left asking “What was all that about?”

A story should be a “globed, compacted thing”, as Virginia Woolf put it. Clear structure is vital.

b. Plot clichés. Stephen King once said that he never again wanted to read a story about a cute pet or precocious child that read minds and/or saved the family heroically when the house burnt down.

My own list of clichés includes a visit to a dying relative who reveals a terrible truth, the scandalous funeral (five mistresses turn up, each claiming to be the dead man’s wife), the magic cottage (now you see it, now you don’t), aliens in the bus queue, and my personal bête noire - the writer who’s struggling against Writer’s Block to write the very story you’re reading now!

c. Dull language. Some stories are a Yorkshire pudding. (This is a traditional English dish that, no matter how you cook it, ends up as a soggy mess.) Over-long sentences, unbroken paragraphs, tedious descriptions that could be replaced by one crisp phrase...

A story doesn’t have to dance with metaphors - the most emotive tales are often told in the simplest language - but it should persuade us that the writer knows their craft.

Entering short story contests is a way of earning while you learn enough of the craft to complete your first novel. Regard every story as a five-finger exercise. You might practise body language in one, gain experience with characterisation in another, and try different approaches to dialogue in a third. After you’ve won a dozen top prizes, you’ll have acquired every craft skill necessary to write novels. All you need then is stamina.

As for the Writers' Village short story contest, I plan to keep raising the prize values. Every time I’ve done that, the quality of the entries improves, and I have a more interesting challenge. How can I distinguish between twenty shades of excellence? The job gets harder each quarter but having a rigorous set of criteria makes it possible.

I wish that more contest judges used formal criteria and clearly published them. Above all, I wish that more contests told entrants why they didn’t win, rather than leaving them in darkness and frustration.

*Dr John Yeoman passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has also judged a contest or two.


  1. I've never seen any marketing boosts from contests I've entered, but I've come to the conclusion that a new cottage industry has arisen on the Internet ... the writing contest business. Too bad they don't give frequent user credits ... I'd be able to take a vacation on the Riviera by now.

  2. Glad you stopped by and found the post helpful, Moody Writing.

    LOL, Christopher, I'll join you on the trip. Seriously, though, writers do need to be aware that there are people out there running contests just to make money and winning those contests don't carry much weight.

    Here is a link to Poets and Writers where listings of legitimate contests can be found.

  3. Thanks for a great post with excellent tips. I've entered a bunch of contests over time, using them to drive deadlines. Sometimes I have no idea why they reward me, other times I have no idea why they refuse me. I wish they'd have a grading template - then I could learn from the experience. Even those that offer "feedback" vary extremely in what that entails.

  4. Thanks for stopping in, John, and for sharing your rubric. Contests can be great checkpoints for gauging your progress, if you are allowed to learn from the scoring system. I loved the Pennwriters contest for sharing its exhaustive rubric, which was enough to power a rewrite. I hear that the Sandy competition is another whose feedback you can learn much from:

  5. Thanks for adding those other contests, Kathryn. It is always good to have a variety to enter and get feedback from.

    John will probably be joining us later to comment. He is in the UK, after all. Probably sleeping. (smile)

  6. Nay, Maryann, I am not asleep! (The merry whistling of the village bobby woke me five minutes ago...)

    I agree with Christopher that story contests need to be addressed with due suspicion. How long has the contest been running? What's the quality of the winning stories? Are the stories even published? (If not, how can we tell the quality of the judging - or that the prizes were paid out at all?)

    But I wouldn't be too scathing, Maryann, about contests that are run to make money. After all, the prizes must be funded somehow. That said, I shudder with horror, as I'm sure you do, at those contests that are badly run, ineptly judged, and/or provide no feedback to the contestants. And which appear to be no more than money mills.

    As I mentioned to you separately, I was inspired to start the Writers' Village contest after, many years ago, entering a competition where my story - and money - went into a black hole. No feedback at all.

    That said, there are some great contests out there. Entering them gives you splendid 'five finger exercises' in writing stories. Plus the motivation of a deadline. (And even the occasional prize... :))

  7. Excellent guidelines, John. Thank you for guesting on our BRP blog!

  8. In listing your tips, you highlighted the importance of tighter, more powerful writing that connects with the reader. As a retired editor and writing mentor, I applaud your efforts to make writers accountable for the quality of their work.

    Thank you for sharing, John.

  9. In listing your tips, you highlighted the importance of tighter, more powerful writing that connects with the reader. As a retired editor and writing mentor, I applaud your efforts to make writers accountable for the quality of their work.

    Thank you for sharing, John.

  10. These are wonderful guidelines. It's nice to get an inside look at how a contest is run. I know it's not possible, but I wish every contest rejection came with a critique. It's hard to hear, but so necessary for honing your craft.

  11. Thanks, Brianna. That's music to my ears! Occasionally, contestants will fume at my marks but, when I explain why they got them, most are very happy. Why? It's the first time a contest judge has ever communicated with them - and explained why those marks were awarded!

  12. Thanks - these are great pointers, and it's a good and informative article.

    But I find it strange that you consider writing short stories to be a stepping stone to writing novels. Really?

    Short stories are different from novels in more ways than just length. They must pack more in, they cannot afford to digress into sub-plots or backstory in any substantial way, they must have much more of a punch or a moment or a revelation...

    Many fiction writers work in only one form or the other. By choice. Short stories have been hard to publish, but now, with ebooks and digital publishing, I think we will be seeing a resurgence of the form.

  13. I agree, Jacqueline. Novels are a whole lot more than short stories plus extra padding. Complex structure becomes a major issue.

    That said, the craft techniques used in a great short story are identical to those visible in a novel. Characterisation? Pace? Closure? If you can make those work in a 5000-word story you can make them triumph in a novel!


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