Although the quality of the story itself has a major impact on whether it is chosen as the top entry, a writer can take certain steps to enhance the likelihood of becoming a winner.
Years ago, in an episode of the Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife, in his inimitable style, pronounced the rules for the Mayberry jail to a first-time prisoner. “The first rule is…obey all rules.” Likewise, when entering contests, the most important thing to remember is to obey all rules. For writing contests, this has two applications.
First, every set of contests has general rules as to deadlines and formats, as well as where and how entries must be sent. For example, if the sponsor receives an entry after the deadline, it will be disqualified without fail. Also, if an entrant submits a single-spaced manuscript when the rules require double-spacing, the chances of success will diminish. Moreover, a hand-written manuscript will never win when the contest specifies typed or printed entries.
Second, each individual contest has its own set of parameters as to length, genre, etc. If contest parameters limit the word count to 2500 words, a longer entry cannot win. If its description calls for a poem, an essay or short story will not work. If the contest asks for a mystery and a writer submits a romance, the entrant should not expect to win. If a poetry contest calls for free verse, poems with rhyme won’t do.
Furthermore, always pay close attention to the details of the contest description. Failure to do so can be catastrophic. On one occasion, I submitted a well-written story to a contest that called for a day in the life of a certain type of person. Because I failed to notice that requirement, my entry took place on two days about a week apart. I won nothing. Later, the same story won first place in a contest for which it met all the rules.
In addition to following the rules, a writer must make a good first impression. One way to accomplish this goal is to present a neat, clean manuscript. Choose decent quality white paper. Avoid typos and misspelled words. If the paper gets dirty or wrinkled, reprint it. Don’t make handwritten corrections. I have heard of contest entries on which the writer marked out the name of a previous contest and wrote in by hand the name of the current one. Don’t expect judges to look favorably on such a manuscript.
To further enhance your chances, find ways to make your entry stand out from the others. Give the sponsors what they ask for, but look for a different angle. For example, in a contest which called for the use of certain words including “siren,” a writer won in part by making the siren a femme fatale rather than a device found on an emergency vehicle.
If you follow the above guidelines, I believe you will increase your chances of success with your contest entries.