Writing for contests can be a great way to improve your writing skills. Like any other skill, your writing will improve with practice. And, since contests often provide specific requirements, they can force you out of your comfort zone and let you experiment with genre or style. Many writing clubs sponsor contests with inexpensive entry fees to encourage beginners to participate.
Some contests offer feedback or critique of your entry. If it is offered, definitely take it. Contest judges can point out aspects of your writing that are working, and also things that need improvement. Local writing clubs are also a great place to learn more about the craft of writing and receive valuable feedback on your work.
Here are a few pointers to give your contest entry the best possible chance for success.
First, follow the rules or guidelines. Enter only what the contest calls for. For example, don’t enter a free verse poem in a sonnet contest, no matter how good you think it is. Pay attention to word or page count. Don’t go over the maximum. Judges will disqualify it, even if it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever read. If the contest specifies a subject or theme, use it. Follow guidelines on whether you need a coversheet. Meet your deadline. Late entries are not read.
Secondly, make sure your entry is formatted properly. Contests usually specify preferred format. If they do not specify, there are some standard rules that are considered almost universal.
For example, use standard 8-1/2 x 11 inch white, unlined paper, 20-pound weight or higher. Colored paper or thin onion-skin paper make it difficult to read, and judges often read dozens of pages, so a paper that is pale or hard to read will not be pleasant for them.
For the same reason, use a common, readable 12-point font. If the contest doesn’t specify, Times New Roman or Courier are generally recommended. Never submit handwritten entries. Print on only one side of paper, with standard margins, double spaced, and justify left margin only for prose. (Poetry may be single or double spaced, and margins and justification can be adjusted as needed for aesthetics.)
That brings us to the important part, content. Make sure your submission is appropriate to the contest in theme or subject. An original take or position on the theme is a plus. Use a strong attention-grabbing title. Try to grab the reader (judge) in your first paragraph, or even your first sentence.
Edit your work carefully. Check your grammar and punctuation. Check it again. Don’t rely on spell check. “Find” and eliminate overused words, such as: and, maybe, only, really, that, etc. Watch for overuse of forms of “to be” verbs: is, are, was, were, etc.
Stronger action verbs enable you to bring your reader into your story. Be original and avoid clichés. Eliminate excessive description. Trim and tighten to make your work stronger. Avoid offensive words and strong dialect. You don’t want to insult or offend your judge.
Finally, perform a final check by reading through the rules again, and making sure your entry meets all guidelines. Proofread your entry, then read it again, preferably out loud. Correct any typos or mistakes, and reprint a clean copy. Review your cover sheet. Assemble your entry, cover sheet, and entry fee in an envelope. Double check the address for entries, affix proper postage and mail by the deadline.