5 Tips to Help You Win a Writing Contest


Photo credit: jake-ingle-w_78KOJiih4-unsplash

A big welcome to Desiree Villena for this amazing guest post!

5 Tips to Help You Win a Writing Contest

For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of judging a weekly writing contest. This involves reading dozens of short stories all written to themed prompts, culling the good from the bad, and agonizing over which of my favorites is truly the best.

Some days I’m overwhelmed with quality submissions — which is honestly the best kind of torture. I could easily see a number of our participants going on to publish their own books. But while we’re blessed to get so many amazing stories every week, I’ve also seen plenty that is, well… less than stellar.

Today, I’m going to take you behind the curtain and show the kinds of things I watch for while judging. To be sure, while there’s no “one weird trick” to guarantee you’ve penned a winning story in either my contest or any other. However, these tips will at least make your story a much more solid and compelling entry — no matter where you’re submitting.

Tip #1: Keep your copy clean

Nothing will drag me out of a story faster than dumb mistakes.

By this, I don’t mean you’re not allowed a single typo — though you should be sure to edit your story as best as you can before submitting. But when I open a story and immediately see a wall of text with no paragraph breaks, misplaced quotation marks, and half the sentences beginning with lowercase letters, I know I’m not dealing with a professional writer.

Tip #2: Punch up your dialogue

I judge short fiction, so every sentence has to count. This goes double for dialogue. There’s not much time for me to get to know a character, and the worst sin you can commit is writing conversations just to fill space.

It’s true that real people rarely talk in deeply revealing, meaningful exchanges or pithy quips that tell the reader everything about the speaker. If we’re honest, we often don’t speak in complete sentences, at least not around the people to whom we’re close. But, fair or not, characters get held to a higher standard — each line they speak should not only carry the story forward, but also provide insight into who they are.

Tip #3: Understand your form

This may seem self-evident, but if you’re submitting to a short story contest, be sure that you’ve written a short story — not the opening chapter of a novel, and not a summary of a larger work!

Different formats can be tricky to understand, especially if you’re not used to writing in them. But it’s important to wrap your head around the fact that a short story is fundamentally different from a novel: not just in pacing, but in structure, tone, and where the crux of the story lies.

Similarly, poems, flash fiction, and novellas all have their own rules. Be conscious of what you’re writing — and what you’re not writing — when you submit to a contest.

Tip #4: Know the rules

Much like writing clean copy, this is another “quality signal” that judges watch for, whether they realize it or not.

I don’t mean to say there’s no room for creativity — quite the contrary, as we’ll get to in my next tip! But there’s a difference between purposefully breaking convention for artistic reasons and just… not understanding the basic rules of storytelling and grammar.

Before you submit to a contest, make sure your story follows these basics: use strong verbs, show don’t tell, and avoid “purple prose,” among others. Not sure if your work is up to snuff? Before you submit, you could always run it by a professional editor.

Tip #5: But don’t be afraid to experiment!

The best short stories I’ve read in our contest — the stories I still think about months later — are the ones that surprise me. Whether that’s a perfectly spun second-person narrative about the fear women face when confronted by strange men, or a love story about a pill bug, I love to read something I’ve never seen before.

Taking this approach does run the risk that your experimental prose will rub people the wrong way. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a winner who played it safe. So long as you know what you’re doing, feel free to let your imagination run wild and your prose spool out in thrilling new directions.

So go ahead — take that big swing. And good luck!


Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world's best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers.

Sample of The Unspoken

This is Chapter 1 of The Unspoken, an exclusive novella for my newsletter list.
Coming June 2020. Enjoy!

Hiding is the surest way to be found out.
~The Traveler

The sailor spotted her behind a weathered barrel on the deck, hunched small on a rolled piece of canvas. 

Ionna caught her breath, skin prickling. She gripped the staff in her hands so tightly blood pounded in her fingers. The staff could serve as a weapon if need be.

The sailor’s skin was dark everywhere. Darker than the ebony trees in the forest near her village. His tightly-curled hair was graying along with his beard, surrounding a face full of crisscrossing lines that reminded her of parched earth. The man’s cracked lips moved, revealing crooked, stained teeth and gaps from teeth lost in his rough sea life. Ionna analyzed his posture and expressions. Was he threatening or kind?

Before she started her journey she had imagined the dangers for a woman traveling alone, but the past days had taught her how na├»ve she was. 

And now, after a day and a half aboard the rocking ship, terrified to interact with these wild men, her thirst was formidable, cleaving her tongue to the dried husk of the roof of her mouth. She yearned for cool water to wash her parched throat. She had hoped for rain, but the faeries her people prayed to had not answered. At long last, in desperation, she had lapped at a puddle of seawater pooled on the deck. Her stomach retched and she spat out the bitter saltiness. The sailors had laughed at her with their hard, closed faces, violently contorted lips, and hungry eyes. She imagined their grasping hands—and she had found this spot to hide.

She looked warily toward the sailor. He was still there.

She slid farther away, her back connecting with the side of the ship.

He held something shaped like a small cup, nodded at it, then pointed his chin at her. His lips moved again. His eyes were dark like his skin, and they crinkled at the corners. Could she trust him?

This water might be the same as what she tasted before. Perhaps this man was tricking her, only to laugh as the others had done. Or he expected payment. Payment in coins she no longer possessed—or payment in terms rough men seemed to expect in this strange world.

She used to long for the mysteries of the world outside the forest. Now she wasn’t so sure.
The grizzled sailor held the cup to his lips and tipped his head back, then licked a drop of water from his lips. He winked one eye and set the vessel on the deck near the barrel she’d hidden behind, and took a step back. 

She hesitantly grasped the cup, surprised at the material of its construction. Gray in color like the heavy clouds, cold like stone on her fingers, and somehow moist—as if the liquid inside had found a way through the cup’s very walls. Her worn, wooden cup at home in the forest seemed very far away. Her fingers identified bumps on the sides of the cup where it had been roughly handled. She peeked at the sailor. His storm-gray whiskers sprouted in all directions from weathered cheeks. Grizzle would be a good name for him, if he deserved a name.

Ionna took a deep breath, then a tentative sip. The water tasted flat and stale and faintly of oak. But not salty.

She started to gulp the rest, but a staying motion from ‘Grizzle’ reminded her to slow down. 
She finished the last of the water and handed the cup back to Grizzle, with what she hoped was a grateful expression. He crinkled his eyes at her and moved his lips some more.  He passed the cup back to her, seeming to indicate it was hers. She slid it into a patch pocket on her skirt.

He brought her more water and a few pieces of hard cracker-like bread. Grizzle sat near her for hours. Through the heat of the sun poking between the clouds. Through the autumn leaf-colored rays as evening began. Through the apparent taunts of the other sailors, judging by their expressions and waving lips. He didn’t even seem bothered by the swirling tattoos beside her right eye. Apparently, women outside the forest wore no facial tattoos. How did they identify the differences between women? 

Later, Grizzle showed her the wooden barrel where she could dip her own water, and she realized the reason for the oak flavor. Of course, there was no forest stream here in the midst of the briny sea.

Ionna stood to stretch her stiff legs, gripping the rail with one hand and the staff with the other and looking over the waves. Over the last few days, she had occasionally glimpsed an island or hint of land in the far distance. Too far away. A fear of falling from the ship and drowning in the bracken waves roiled her belly. No one else seemed to be plagued with the same apprehension. She longed to hold onto the mast—the only structure similar to the trees of her forest—rather than venture near the rail of the vessel. But that would keep her near the other sailors.

Grizzle stood at the rail a few feet away—far enough to seem non-threatening—whittling some bit of wood with a short blade. The creases in his fingers and his fingernails seemed permanently stained darker than his skin. He glanced over at her, his lips breaking into a lopsided smile, and she wondered if she dared listen for his thoughts. Just to see if she could hear him.

At home, her people spoke not with lips but mind to mind. They heard not with ears but within their spirit. But since she left Lika Forest, she had never dared to reach out with her mind to listen to what a stranger tried to communicate with their flapping lips.  

Could she risk Grizzle’s awareness at what might seem like spying? Collect his thoughts before they poured out through his mouth?

She sent a tentative tendril of listening thought in his direction. Searching. Seeking. And then—the words smacked into her like a rogue wave. She was nearly bowled over by the intensity and volume of his thoughts, unlike the calm, steadiness of the men at home. She gripped the rail and staff tighter to still her mind.

…the sea be my mistress and I be hers. 

His lips seemed to move along with his thoughts. She should watch these lip movements more.
Grizzle readjusted the smoky pipe now clenched between his blackened back teeth. He pointed his blade at the shining fish swimming alongside the ship, leaping from the water over one another’s backs. 

Them be shad. Always show up when we pass through the channel. Means only two more days, if the sea stays calm.

Two days. She slid her hand down the surface of the intricately carved staff, every swirl and knob long since memorized. Did she have a chance to find the Traveler before he moved on? She felt a flush rise from her neck and hoped the loosened tendrils from her braid whipping about her face kept the sailor from noticing.

She closed her eyes and let Grizzle’s words trickle past her mind in a stream. She hadn’t realized how starved she was for communication, how lonely. It seemed impossible that only ten days had passed since she slipped away from home. Since she last mind-spoke with her family. Were they worried? Did they understand why she had to find the Traveler?

And ten long days where she had denied herself the temptation to seek out the words people spoke to her. Unsure and afraid, she relied only on hand gestures and expressions. And in return, most people treated her like the deaf-mute she was.

When Ionna had first stepped from the safety and familiarity of the forest and into the first tribe she met, her knees locked together and she could not have stirred, even if a swallow hole had opened beneath her feet. People moved everywhere, it seemed. Dressed in somber colors, so different from her colorful blouse and skirt, their patched and ragged clothes indicating hard workers who rarely took a moment to rest. Some pushed small carts or led animals that pulled conveyances loaded with dried grass or cut pieces of wood. Their hair was not only black like everyone in her tribe. She marveled to see the brown of tree trunks, the red of fox fur, the fawn color of a deer, and even a color like sunshine represented on their heads and beneath their hats and kerchiefs.

But most peculiar was the way they turned to one another. Opened their mouths. Lips twisted and smacked, tongues dancing inside. With each movement, their expressions changed. Somehow this tribe communicated in a way she had never seen. She had heard the tales from Petar, but they seemed impossible.

Despite her loneliness, her heart burned with purpose. She had never longed for the burden placed upon her in the forest, but finding Petar was different. She looked up at the sailors swarming over the rigging.

Grizzle’s thoughts invaded again. I know them sailors look like ants on honey, but they know what they’re about. Havin’ a purpose—I didn’t understand till I was taken from my home—there’s a satisfaction in that.

Ionna wanted to roll her eyes. Grizzle sounded like her grandmother. Her only purpose was finding Petar. Finding her place with him.

The wind picked up and the ship dipped into a trough between waves, sending spray into her face. She closed her eyes against the salty moisture, readjusting her grip on both the rail and the staff. But behind her eyelids, she saw the Traveler—Petar—his broad shoulders encased in a fitted deerskin shirt and dark leather vest, a worn oiled cape folded over his arm, and this very staff in his hand. His leather breeches tucked into knee-high boots, nicked and scratched from his many adventures. As she listened to his thoughts, he would shake his shaggy light-colored hair from his brown eyes, dispensing a favored nod or wink from time to time.

How many hours had she spent sitting around the fire with the others of her tribe—young and old—sitting at his feet, soaking in the stories of his travels around the world? Her tribe never left Lika Forest; all of them were hungry for a glimpse of places they would never see. 

Petar told of people who spoke mouth to ear, and never with the mind. Of cities with untold thousands who lived, strangely, on the very ground. Of vast areas of sand with no trees, and untold expanses of water, where one could no longer see land. Each story seemed like a faerie tale. If only she could see if the stories were true.

And here she was, embarking on a journey much like the Traveler. If she found him, would he be proud of her? Grateful to be reunited with the staff he had left behind and the information she brought? Perhaps, just perhaps he would understand that she longed to keep him company on his search. Perhaps he would invite her to join him as a partner. A friend. 

And perhaps even more. 

Book Review: Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist

I love historical fiction, and Deeanne Gist is one of those authors who you know will deliver a great story, wonderful characterization, and the zing of romance. Gist's latest novel, Tiffany Girl, releases today.

Set during the time of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, this book (Gist's third set in that year) takes place in New York City, where Louis Tiffany creates stained glass windows. Check out the synopsis:

SYNOPSIS: From the bestselling author of It Happened at the Fair and Fair Play comes a compelling historical novel about a progressive “New Woman”—the girl behind Tiffany’s chapel—and the love that threatens it all.

As preparations for the 1893 World’s Fair set Chicago and the nation on fire, Louis Tiffany—heir to the exclusive Fifth Avenue jewelry empire—seizes the opportunity to unveil his state-of-the-art, stained glass, mosaic chapel, the likes of which the world has never seen.

But when Louis’s dream is threatened by a glassworkers’ strike months before the Fair opens, he turns to an unforeseen source for help: the female students at the Art Students League of New York. Eager for adventure, the young women pick up their skirts, move to boarding houses, take up steel cutters, and assume new identities as the “Tiffany Girls.”

Tiffany Girl is the heartwarming story of the impetuous Flossie Jayne, a beautiful, budding artist who is handpicked by Louis to help complete the Tiffany chapel. Though excited to live in a boarding house when most women stayed home, she quickly finds the world is less welcoming than anticipated. From a Casanova male, to an unconventional married couple, and a condescending singing master, she takes on a colorful cast of characters to transform the boarding house into a home while racing to complete the Tiffany chapel and make a name for herself in the art world.

As challenges mount, her ambitions become threatened from an unexpected quarter: her own heart. Who will claim victory? Her dreams or the captivating boarder next door?

Gist's characters Flossie and Reeve will pull you in and keep you turning pages. I handed the book to my husband the other night and haven't seen him except for meals. You can read more about the characters here.

Through a special arrangement, readers can buy the book at a 30% discount from Givington's. Not only will readers get a great deal, but $1.50 of the purchase will go toward an organization helping kids with dyslexia, which Gist herself suffered from.

If you belong to a book club, Gist has not one, but three different free book club kits available for download. Choose the one that fits your group the best. Also, head over to Gist's site to enter a contest for a great bathtub reading kit.

What was the last book you read? Leave a note in the comments.

Contest Alert: Free Entry and Prizes of over $20,000 in Write to Done Contest

Another contest? You bet.
Free entry? Check.
Huge prizes? Check.

Writers love feedback--and the chance to seek validation. But that usually comes with a price. Twenty and thirty-dollar entry fees really add up when you're not making a lot of money from your writing.

So it's refreshing to see that the Write to Done site is offering a contest with real [read: substantial] prizes, AND no entry fee!

Write to Done's Freeditorial Long-Short Fiction Contest offers a whopping first prize of $15,000. Second place brings $5,000, and third place is $2,000. No small potatoes here.

Write to Done has teamed up with Freeditorial, an online publishing house. What is Freeditorial? Here's a quote from them:
Freeditorial is an online Publishing House and represents a great opportunity for new writers. In our purchases, we give preference to books from new writers and to short stories or articles from established authors.Our goal is to expand the literary world by fostering more writing talent. Here at Freeditorial, we buy digital publishing rights while incorporating innovative methods to the publishing field. While Freeditorial writers get paid for their work to reward their efforts and maintain motivation–just like with any traditional publisher–there is a significant difference: the reader has free access to all books and articles we publish.This is possible due to our innovative business model, which is mainly based on using advertising space on our online platform.

Your story will go on their site, and winners will be selected after June 4th, when the contest closes. Winners are selected depending on literary quality and the number of downloads.

Since the contest is participatory, you'll want to enlist your tribe, your writers groups, your friends, your relatives, and your neighbors (a good reason to shovel their walk!).

Submissions can be 10,000-40,000 words in length. Not many contests allow this kind of latitude.
Free ebook for signing up.
Writers can submit from anywhere in the world, however, the submission must be in English.

When you sign up (even if you don't actually enter), you'll get a free download of the report 10 Vital Self-Editing Tips.

For contest details, see the main contest page and the FAQ page.

There's not much to lose. Check through your files to see if you have a story of the right length, and get it submitted. The sooner you enter, the better chance you have of winning readers with your submission. And if you're not interested in submitting, you might want to check out the other contest submissions and make another writer's dream come true.

Question: Have contest entries strengthened your writing?

Note: One reader alerted me to some concerns about Freeditorial. To read them and evaluate for yourself, go to Absolute Write (a great site for writers) and search for Freeditorial. As with any contract, you want to be sure you know what rights you may be relinquishing and for how long. Thanks for the heads up, Bill!

Horror Writers: Free Writing Contest

Dark and creepy is your thing? Goosebumps make you smile? Don't mind spine-tingles and skitters up your spine?

If so, then this contest is for you.

Inkitt is an online platform where writers of all genres share their stories (and even fan fiction) with readers, billed as a "platform for writers to write, share, and improve their writing".

To promote the Berlin-based site, Inkitt is hosting a writing contest during the month of February. Here are the details they shared:

What is Inkitt?
Inkitt is a free platform for writers to cultivate ideas and watch their stories grow. On our site, users collaborate with fellow writers and readers to give each other feedback and improve their work. Our vision is to help writers get the exposure they deserve and the publishing deals they covet without having to jump through the fiery hoops of traditional publishing, or wade in the shark-infested waters of self-publishing.

What is the theme of the horror contest?
"You are in the darkest place in the world." (This theme can be interpreted literally or figuratively.) We want writers who will submit their blood-curdlers, spine-tinglers, skin-crawlers, and hair-raisers; writers who will make it their duty to scare and shock their readers; writers who can really take us to the darkest place in the world.

What are the guidelines?
It’s all about fiction: flashes and shorts up to 10,000 words, written from any point of view. Entries must be posted on the Inkitt contest page to be considered eligible. The contest opens on February 2nd and closes on February 28th. The contest is completely free to enter, and authors will retain all rights to any and all work submitted in the contest.

What are the prizes?

All entrants will have the chance to show their work to a growing community of authors and readers hungry for high-quality fiction and win the following prizes:
1st Prize
$25 Amazon gift card, Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook, custom cover design for the Inkitt story of their choice (created by Inkitt’s designer).
2nd Prize
$20 Amazon gift card, Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook.
3rd Prize

Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook.

Even if horror isn't your thing, check out the site. They also accept action, adventure, children's, drama, fantasy, humor, mystery, poetry, romance, sci-fi, and thrillers. Readers can rate stories based on several criteria and leave comments. What a great way to get your writing out there and receive feedback. 

Have you ever posted your writing on an online site? What was your experience?

Sudden Weight Loss: Put your prose on a diet with this free tool

Bing Free Images
Is your manuscript weighing in far over your word count? Has your willpower to cut words weakened? Are you bothered by bloated scenes?

Try this: put your prose on a diet.

WritersDiet is an online tool to evaluate your writing on a scale from 'lean' all the way to 'heart attack territory'. Simply paste a block of writing in the box and click 'run the test'.

In seconds, the site analyzes your sample with an algorithm, grading different areas of efficiency. You'll see an overall grade, then an analysis of your use of five different categories: verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives & adverbs, plus those pesky words like it, this, that, and there.

The score indicates areas you could consider tightening. Here's an example of a score chart. Click the red 'see full diagnosis' for a printable pdf file of your sample, score, and suggestions for changes.

Below the ratings, the site shows your sample passage with individual words highlighted in each of the colors. I was surprised to see that I used the word 'up' three times. I'll definitely make some changes.

If you find you need to cut words, here are two tips to try:

Fantasy author Carol Berg challenges herself by looking at the end of a paragraph. Mine (above) has a 'tail' of four words at the bottom. Carol, who admits to wordy first drafts,  would find enough words to cut in the paragraph to eliminate that tail.

Agent Rachelle Gardner compiled a list of words to watch for. Use the 'find' feature on your word processor to locate and then eliminate excess verbiage.

Keep in mind that the WritersDiet site warns,
The WritersDiet Test is a blunt instrument, not a magic bullet. A stylish passage may score badly on the test, and a dull passage may score well. It is up to you to make intelligent use of the targeted feedback that the test provides.

What kinds of words add inches to your manuscript? Any additional tips for tightening?

Try Your Hand at Flash Fiction

photo credit: mine
Everyone needs a little escape. Lately, I've been stopping at beautiful spots for five to fifteen minutes, and soaking in the scenery. It's amazing what something a little out of the ordinary can do for your outlook--and your creativity.

Flash fiction is one way to enjoy an escape without leaving your desk. You may be in the middle of NaNoWriMo, and unable to invest time in a novel. Maybe small children in your life suck up the hours you used to spend reading. Or your job demands even your off hours.

Flash fiction is the perfect way to step out of your ordinary world for just a few minutes. And if you're a writer, it's the perfect vehicle to express your creativity when your time is limited.

Many online magazines offer homes for flash fiction. Duotrope is one place to search for likely sites. Be sure to check the word count specified, and stick with it. Though it can be challenging, cutting your words is actually a great skill for writers in any genre. And you'll find yourself collecting clips for your writing resume.

I recently submitted a piece of flash fiction to Flatirons Literary Review [read Circus Dreams here]. It's a great magazine for readers and writers. If you're interested in submitting (they also accept essays and poetry), go to their submission site for details.

Where do you find inspiration for flash fiction? One way is to take a few minutes to write based on a writing prompt. Circus Dreams came from a Writer's Digest prompt. They have hundreds gathered on their site.

Another is to take one of your existing stories and cut it to its bare bones (after saving a copy of the original, of course!). Or just free write based on something you observed or felt today.

Whether your piece gets published or not, you'll have exercised your writing muscle. And we can all use an escape like that.

What is the shortest piece you've written?

Book Review: Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits, by Mary Jane Hathaway

Jane Austen fans everywhere can look forward to a new series featuring intrepid Southern heroines. Volume one, Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits, features rising history professor Shelby Roswell as she struggles with her trouble-inducing habit of opening her mouth and inserting her foot. This happens often in the presence of the handsome Ransom Fielding, the man whose book review is currently tanking her attempts at pursuing tenure.

Author Mary Jane Hathaway stays true to the elements readers love in Austen's books, while weaving in a hefty dose of humor, all set against a well-drawn backdrop of a small Southern college. With squeaky clean shades of Bridget Jones' Diary, Hathaway will draw many fans.

The fireworks between Shelby and Ransom are enough to keep the reader turning pages--and snorting a time or two--until the eminently satisfying conclusion.

I really loved the Q&A with the author at the end of the book. Hathaway (the author's pen name) writes novels despite homeschooling six children--a huge feat in itself! The book also contains a book club discussion guide and several 'enhance your book club'
Author Mary Jane Hathaway

For more information on the series, Jane Austen Takes the South, visit the publisher's website or Mary Jane Hathaway's Facebook page.

Are you an Austen fan? Would you enjoy a retelling set in a location other than England? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I received a free copy of this book from Howard Books, for my honest review. The opinions expressed here are my own.

Smackdown With Your Inner Editor

Do you have trouble keeping your analytical side quiet when it's time to write? Do you struggle to silence your creative side when it's time to edit?

Check out the tips I've gathered. I'm writing over at the Pikes Peak Writers blog today. And check out the spot where I'm actually sitting right now. I'm visiting an old ghost town in Arizona.



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