Short Story Contests: How to Beat the Odds

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February 25, 2022

Cutting through the noise as a writer is hard. Not only are short story contests a great way to get eyes on your work, winning a short story competition can provide a much needed sense of validation, and it never hurts to make money doing what you love. Here are some tips on how to enter a short story contest that will hopefully give you the best chance for success.

Tip 1: Read the rules.

No seriously, read the rules. Then read them again. Then again. Is your story formatted the way the judges want? Does the contest have a theme and does your story fit? Is there a minimum or maximum word count? What’s the submission deadline? The last thing you want after putting in all that work is for your story to be thrown out on a technicality, so pay close attention to any instructions or guidance from the contest runners.

Tip 2: Have someone read your work.

It might seem obvious, but with a sudden looming deadline you could be tempted to simply submit what you have as fast as you can, And if you’re not putting forth the most polished version of your work, you’re just wasting the judges' and your time. You can have someone close to you read it, or workshop it on an online story sharing site or forum. In a pinch you can even activate the text-to-speech functions on certain word processors and have that read your work back to you out loud. If nothing else it’s a great tool for catching typos and grammatical errors your eyes may have missed.

Tip 3: Stop and evaluate 

Rejection sucks. And while perseverance is admirable, if you keep slamming against the rocks like a salmon swimming upstream, you’ll burn out. If months or even years are going by and you’re getting nowhere, it’s OK to take a step back. Evaluate. Are you submitting your best work? Are you punching above your weight, applying to contests frequented by veteran writers while you’re still a novice? And most important, are you getting burnt out and starting to hate the whole process? Stop. The best thing about writing is there’s no age restriction. You’re not too late, time isn’t running out, and you’ll get far more out of the whole experience by pacing yourself.

Tip 4: Stand out from the crowd

Hook your readers with a poignant first line, endear them to an unforgettable character, leave them lingering on a thoughtful philosophical conundrum, or better yet, all three and more. The judges will be reading hundreds, maybe thousands of stories, and to catch their attention you’ll have to offer something unique, arresting and well-crafted. Make your story clear, concise and engaging with that extra something that makes readers sit up and say “Hmm!” Not easy, but pull it off and you’re sure to make it past 90% of the other entries.

Happy writing and good luck!

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