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How to Win a Writing Contest

I sorted through the pile of literary award submissions I had been asked to judge and metaphorically threw my hands up in the year. The pre-selection committee had already sifted through an untold number of short stories submitted by hopeful contestants, and they had sent their top 10 favourites to me and the other two judges for further assessment.

Our task was to select the top three and, from there, choose one writer’s short story for the $1,000 prize. How was I ever going to rank them all? This was a prestigious literary prize with an attractive award. And it was interesting to find that the issues some of the strongest literary writers in Canada grapple with are very similar to the issues with which the people I work with as a book coach and editor must contend. The issues loosely fall into two categories: Writing Skill and Story Telling.

In terms of Writing Skill, it’s important to remember that your editor will be able to catch most of the errors you might inadvertently make—but the more careful you are with the original material, the less it’s going to cost you in editing fees. So, there’s an advantage to being as careful as you can up front.

The issues I see most often in the area of writing skill tend to be in the areas of:

  • Grammar
  • Tenses
  • Proper use of prepositions
  • Chronology
  • Vocabulary or improper word usage
  • Typographical errors
  • Incorrect use of quotation marks
  • Over-reliance on clichés

The challenges I see most commonly with storytelling – in fiction and in non-fiction writing – tend to be in the areas of:

  • Detail. Maybe there’s a chair in your story. Is it big, wooden, fabric, plastic, or metal? Does it have cushions on the seat, purple slipcovers or is the paint peeling off a spot at the bottom of the right front leg? What colour is the room it sits in, is the man sitting in it wearing a jacket that is much too big for his slender frame, and was his hair so messy you could tell he was having a rough day
  • Engaging the senses. I want to inhale the fishy scent of the beach, and feel the heat rising off the sand to brutalize your bare feet while you are interviewing the owner of an ocean-front retreat center you are thinking of renting for your clients. I want to hear the hum of a lawnmower, and flies buzzing at a window pane, while you are waiting to hear if you got the contract for which you were bidding.
  • Vagueness. I, your reader, don’t know everything. If you are dumping a “yellow box of sin” into the recycling bin, I won’t know whether the box contains paper, lemons, budgies or pencils. You have to tell me!
  • Endings. A weak ending leaves the reader feeling lost. Circle back to the topic you introduced at the beginning of your chapter, draw some conclusions about the material you have just presented, and get me to do something or conclude something about the information you presented. Don’t just drop the topic. Tell me why I should care.

Great writing is care-full. It is never lazy.

The judging committee of the short story contest with which I was involved enjoyed much discussion over the relative merits of the short-listed submissions. In the end, we selected a beautifully-written story that took the reader on an interesting emotional journey through a Parisian park during a rainstorm.

We are each on our own writing continuum and there is always more to learn. But whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, good writing is good writing, and it pays to pay attention to the details that will take your work from “OK” to Memorable.

What do you think? Are there other issues you feel are important in writing well? Drop me a line and let’s discuss!

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