How to win short story competitions (possibly)

Okay, the header might be a tad ambitious, but I’ve recently seen some very interesting articles on the Twitters about what short story competition judges look for as they sift through hundreds of hopefuls. The most insightful piece I read was Do You Make these 7 Big Mistakes When Entering Story Contests? by writer and veteran competition judge John Yeoman, which helpfully offers as many do’s as don’ts.

On his ‘do’ list:

  • do have at least one character that readers can bond with/identify with
  • do get to the meat of the story FAST
  • do pay attention to the arc of your story
  • do present your story properly. [Adding this side note as a former editor: if proofreading isn’t your strong point, ask someone to go through your work who knows their way around a comma. I’m a rank amateur in the creative writing world, but I sometimes read really good stories that make me itch to get out my sub’s red pen. It’s distracting. I can imagine that feeling is tenfold if you’re reading as a judge, where you have to, y’know, be judgemental and whittle numbers down. Maybe there’s a future blog post in that? Hmm…]
  • do read and follow the competition guidelines. [If they ask for entries to be in Times New Roman, don’t go all Rambo and decide your precious words look better in Calibri]


Clusterflunk stock photo.
You want to stand out from the crowd at judgings, but maybe it’s best not to submit your story in Sanskrit or print it out on Hello Kitty notepaper

The ‘don’t’ list is more obvious, though we all make rookie mistakes:

  • don’t bore your audience. Keep the story free of unnecessary details that add nothing
  • don’t go for hackneyed story lines. Unless you can put an original spin on things, death bed revelations and ghosts who don’t know they’re ghosts will make a judging panel roll their no doubt lovely eyes
  • don’t show off your gorgeous use of language while ultimately leaving your reader unengaged (this ties in with having a relatable character, above)
  • don’t use eccentric fonts, colours, decorations. You’ll catch the judges’ attention, but only in a bad way

There’s a lot more in the article, which is a treasure trove of tips. I’ve paraphrased just a few of the points that leap out, but do go read it – it’s invaluable.

In conclusion, Yeoman, and indeed other judges whose articles I’ve stumbled across, says that the final decision can often be very subjective, with judgings descending into (presumably figurative) fisticuffs until one winner is chosen fractionally over others, equally deserving.

All of which goes to show that you just have to write to the best of your ability – taking in the sensible advice on offer – and hope for a lucky throw of the dice (last week I saw an infectious production of Guys & Dolls so ‘Luck Be a Lady’ is ringing in my ears).

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