Have you noticed that more and more writing competitions are offering huge cash prizes these days? For example, The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award offers £30,000 to its winner, making it the richest prize for a single story in the world. The Museum of Words Flash Fiction Contest offers a prize of $20,000 for a mere 100 words. Such generous prizes probably reflect the current resurgence of interest in short stories. It’s good news for writers, but with these enormous wads of cash on offer, the contests are highly competitive (the last Museum of Words flash fiction contest, for instance, attracted 22,571 entries from 119 countries).

Of course there are thousands of other writing competitions on offer, including some well-established annual contests that offer prestige and kudos to the winners, as well as substantial prizes. Usually (although not always), the bigger the prize, the higher the entry fee and the more entries the competition will receive.

To find information about upcoming competitions, try Googling “writing competitions”, or check the writing magazines. You can also find a comprehensive list of UK short story competitions on the Book Trust website. You should also check with your nearest libraries and writing groups. The are two major advantages to local competitions: they are less likely to have an entry fee (or at least the fee will be much lower) and they attract fewer entries, which means your odds of winning are much better. OK, the prizes might not be quite so dazzling, but a win is a win and it’s something you can add to your writer’s CV.

Some new writers thrive on the discipline of competitions. They enjoy being given a theme or genre and a word count to work to. It’s often the motivation they need to start a story and get it finished to a deadline (the closing date). Winning is never going to be easy, but here are a few pointers that will certainly increase your chances.

Make sure you follow the rules

This may sound obvious but—as any writing judge will tell you—in most competitions there are some entries that have to be disqualified. It could be that a writer’s identity has been included in a competition that states that the writer’s name shouldn’t appear on the manuscript (this is quite a common rule and is applied to remove any chance of bias in the judging). Or perhaps the competition is only open to writers who live in a certain region or state, and an entry has been received from someone who doesn’t live in the qualifying area.

Whatever the reason, remember that rules are there for a reason and everyone will be expected to stick to them. If you’ve paid an entry fee for the competition, don’t waste it. The last thing you want is to be disqualified even before your story has been read. Read the rules two or three times very carefully before you start to write and use them as a checklist to make sure your story meets all the criteria before you send it off.

Most importantly, don’t forget to submit your story within the competition deadline, and allow yourself plenty of time to edit the story before you send it off.

Stick to the word count

Technically, I suppose the word count is one of the competition rules, but this is a point worth emphasising because it’s easily overlooked. Some writers think that exceeding the word limit by ten or twenty words won’t be a problem. Others push it even further and go over by a hundred words or more. It’s a risky strategy and one that may get your story disqualified.

Some competition judges allow a small margin of error on the word count; others enforce it rigidly. Stick to the word count. Try to see it as the motivation you need to thoroughly and objectively edit your work and cut out those unnecessary words.

Enter the right competitions

As I’ve already mentioned, some competitions offer massive prizes. The Bridport Prize and the Fish Publishing contest both offer cash prizes that are well worth winning, but they also have quite a sizeable entry fee and attract entries from lots of writers, including professionals. To improve your odds, consider entering smaller competitions—the prizes will be a lot less impressive, but your chances of winning will be much, much better.

Present your work professionally

Competition judges have to read many, many stories, one after the other. The last thing they need are
manuscripts that are presented in a font that is too small or difficult to read. Always use a minimum size 12 font (typefaces such as Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial and Tahoma are all very clear and easy to read) and make sure you include page numbers. If you have to submit your entry in hard copy format, print it out on decent quality white paper. Include a good sized margin on all four sides so that the judge has space to make notes about your story.

Proof check your work

Every story should be carefully proofread before it is submitted—whether it’s to a competition or a magazine editor. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are a distraction for the person reading your story and will damage your credibility as a writer.

Make the theme work for you

If the competition you’re entering specifies a theme, it’s often a good idea to set aside your first ideas, because they are likely to be the ones that are most obvious; the ideas that everyone else will come up with too. You need to make your story memorable, so steer clear of well-worn storylines.

When a theme is set as part of the competition rules, it’s common for a high proportion of entries to feature similar storylines. Because of this, the judges will face reading a pile of stories that are very much alike. If you can write something that is different, it will stand out in the judge’s mind and you’ll be placing yourself ahead of the crowd.

Dismiss your first ideas and think laterally. Try to create a situation, character or story idea that is unusual, interesting and a little different. Of course, your story will also need to be well-written, but if you can combine a well-crafted story with an original idea, you could be on to a winner.