Tips For Winning Essay Contests

Writing contests can be intimidating. Some writers think, “I’ll never win,” and ignore contests completely. But—surprise!—some writing contests are easier to win than others, but only if you know how to put the odds in your favor. Writer’s Relief manages our clients’ submissions to writing contests, and guess what? They regularly place or even win.

Here Are Some Strategies Our Clients Use To Win Creative Writing Contests In All Genres!

Exploit your niche. There’s a specialized creative writing contest out there for just about every writer and every subject. And the more specialized, the better! When you enter a contest that has a limited number of entrants due to restrictions, you increase your odds of scoring a win. The key is knowing which contests are open to your particular type of writing (and that’s where Writer’s Relief’s submission management comes in handy!). Hint: You can find a fantastic list of creative writing contests here.

Choose an emotional topic.  Judges get bleary-eyed reading page after page of the “same old, same old” work that’s typically submitted to writing contests. So make your readers’ hearts race. Make them laugh or weep with misery. Keep in mind: Sometimes, the most deeply emotional moments of our lives are subtle and quiet…but sometimes they’re as noisy as an 18-wheeler full of sea lions crashing into a gong shop! Whatever tactic you choose, go for the judge’s emotional jugular.

Proofread. You’d think this tip goes without saying, yet here we are saying it—again! At Writer’s Relief, we’re very selective about our client list. All applicants must submit a writing sample prior to admission, which means we read a LOT of submissions. Believe us when we say, a little proofreading will go a LONG way toward impressing the right people. You’d be surprised how many writers overlook this step.

Follow the submission guidelines. Again, this tip should be a no-brainer. But because writing contests tend to have submission guidelines that are a bit persnickety, some writers deliberately overlook the “little things” when it comes to following the rules. Keep in mind: Submissions that DON’T follow the guidelines are usually disqualified right from the start. If your writing contest submission meets the guidelines, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. The odds are in your favor!

Enter a wide range of writing contests. While it would be great to win a “big name” writing contest, smart writers know not to ignore contests that are less well-known. Winning a small contest could mean big things for your writing career—exposure, connections, and of course, prize money! Submitting to a range of contests maximizes the likelihood that you’ll win one of them.

Enter writing that is appropriate for the contest. While there are many no-fee writing contests out there, most contests require writers to pay an entry fee. So it doesn’t make sense to enter a contest that isn’t a very good fit for your particular submission. But—but!—there’s a caveat to avoiding contests that don’t seem like a “perfect” fit. If you’re on the fence, submit anyway (after all, you can’t intimately know the judges’ tastes!). Just be realistic: Don’t submit a poem about dogs to a writing contest about cats.

Surprise your readers. Take risks. Go out on a limb. Do something unexpected and refreshing. When it comes  to creative writing submissions, editors have “seen it all.” Show them something new and you’ll be ahead of the pack.

Remember: Submissions Are a Numbers Game

If you don’t win the first few writing contests that you submit to, don’t lose hope. Judges base their decisions on subjective responses—so keep sending submissions! The only way to win a creative writing contest is to enter. And if you follow our tips, you’ll be ahead of the game.

QUESTION: Do you have a tip that could help another writer? Post it in our comments section!


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  • 1

    Contemplate the topic of the contest. If includes a certain prompt, such as a question(s) you need to answer, then consider how it's affected you in your life. For example - if the prompt is to write about a good deed that has changed you, flip through old photo albums, scrapbooks, and anything related to your past that could help you think of a good deed you once did that impacted your life. Avoid cliches and try to come up with something that's unique to you and doesn't apply to many people. Also, avoid controversial topics that may affect how judges view your essay.

  • 2

    Expand your vocabulary. When writing an essay that isn't fact-based, incorporating words to entail things from your life is key. Judges, published authors, and anyone very involved in the writing field will most likely pay more attention to entries that display that the author has a very broad vocabulary.

  • 3

    Write your essay. Remember to use the majority of your detail on the most significant aspects of your essay. Don't describe a barely-relevant character in heavy detail, for example. If you're just mentioning them to help the reader understand something, then the reader won't care about anything else about the character. However, let's say you're writing an essay on a bullying experience. Describing the bully in heavy detail will help the reader visualize the bully much better for the remainder of the essay.

  • 4

    Make sure you're using the right tone. You want your voice to come through in the essay without sacrificing professionalism, which can be difficult. Watch out for slang words and casual expressions, as well as common cliches (as mentioned above).

  • 5

    Proofread, proofread, proofread! There's nothing more that judges hate than flawed grammar. Writing your heart out means nothing if you don't know how to structure a sentence properly or don't know grammatical rules. Many people prefer having others read their essay for them so a second set of eyes can point out mistakes that the author accidentally breezed by.

  • 6

    Submit your essay. If you've truly written to the best of your ability, take pride in the effort you put into it and hope for the best!

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