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This month find out how to impress competition judges straight from the horse’s mouth and learn to make your writing environment as productive as possible in Ten Top Tips, plus writing events you can attend and useful websites to help you on your way in competitions.

EXPERT ADVICE

WRITING COMPETITIONS – A JUDGE REVEALS ALL

by Simon Whaley

Let me be clear right away, by calling this ‘A Judge Reveals All’, I am not about to strip naked in front of you all! (Not a pretty sight, believe me.) But what I do want to do is strip away a few of the practices that some writers undertake when entering competitions, to reveal how you can improve your chances of winning a writing competition. The closing date for the Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Competition 2009 is 30th June, so there’s still plenty of time to put together a high quality entry and I’ll show you how.

I’ve judged numerous writing competitions (this year’s WB competition judges are Iain Pattison and Alison Chisholm) and it’s the same basic mistakes that crop up time and time again. Take spelling, for example. Let your computer do the spell checking and a replacement word may be correctly spelt, but be entirely the wrong word, leaving a judge in fits of laughter, when emotionally, the story needs empathy and sadness. One entry I read was about a funeral in the early 20th century. The writer intended to say that people doffed their hats as the funeral cortege passed by. Unfortunately, the writer didn’t know how to spell ‘cortege’ and neither did the spellchecker, because what the competition entry submitted actually said was: people doffed their hats as the funeral courgette passed by.’

Competition entries that are planned are of a higher quality and make it through to the shortlists and the winning categories. So to make your competition entry a high-class submission, draw up a timetable. Work backwards from the closing date to identify what needs to be done and by when. Here’s an example.

June 30th 2009 This is the closing date for the Writers Bureau competition. This is your deadline!

June 15th Make this your deadline to have a final, highly polished submission ready to submit. That gives the postal (or email) system two weeks to get your entry in on time. Late entries won’t be judged. If others can get their entry in on time so should you.

June 12th Rule check. Ensure your entry submission meets ALL the rules. More on this later.

June 1st Have your penultimate draft ready. This gives you two weeks to put your entry aside for a few days. When you return to it, pick it up and read it aloud. This is where you will pick up the spelling/typing mistakes. Delete your courgettes! I’ve read entries where some sentences are not even sentences. Reading aloud helps you to ‘hear’ these mistakes.

May 15th Have the second draft of your entry ready. Reread your first draft and make the changes needed to make your entry work. If it’s a story, do you have a gripping opening, a logical middle and an appropriate and satisfying resolution? Does your poetry submission make the point you want it to? If it has a rhyme, does it work across the whole poem?

May 1st Finish your first draft. Accept that this is your first draft and that it doesn’t need to be word perfect now. You have six weeks to perfect your creation. Too many entries are first draft submissions and would work better with more editing. Don’t write something and send it off. Edit. Hone. How do I spot first draft submissions? Easy. A character’s name may be Pollyanna in the opening paragraph and Brian in the final paragraph! A new character may arrive in the final paragraph to resolve the problem because the writer hasn’t thought how to integrate them better into the story. It proves their story hasn’t been planned. First draft poems may not have the right choice of words. Something ‘yellow’ may be better described as ‘golden’.

April 25th Generate ideas for your entry. Yes, ideas – plural. Don’t write about the first idea that comes into your head. If a competition has a theme, then your entry needs to differ substantially from the others to really stand out. The first idea is usually the most obvious and it’s the one that other entrants will run with. Spend time thinking your ideas through. Planning an entry timetable like this means you won’t panic. You will think of better ideas because you know you’ve programmed time to edit your entry before you need to submit it.

Do some research about the judges. I don’t enjoy reading science fiction or fantasy and I say so on my website. An entrant who takes the time to find out a bit about me will learn not to write a science fiction entry for an open themed competition that I’m judging. All judges have personal preferences. I wouldn’t judge a science fiction themed short story competition, but if a science fiction entry was entered into an open themed competition, well unfortunately it just won’t work for me.

In our entry timetable, June 12th is our rule check time. Ensure your entry adheres to ALL the rules. If entries must be on white paper, then print yours on white paper! Print on pink and your entry will be disqualified in fairness to those who have followed the rules. I’ve seen entries on all colours and can confirm that it doesn’t improve the quality of the writing. Black ink on a white background offers the highest contrast, making text easier to read for the judges. And remember, we have hundreds of thousands of words to read. The easier it is to read the better!

Planning your entry like this will result in a higher quality submission and one that meets all the rules. Your chances of success will be higher. Here are my final competition succeeding submission tips.

1. Write something new specifically for each competition. I can spot a rejected magazine short story submission a mile off. If a magazine editor didn’t think it was up to scratch, then chances are I won’t either.

2. Ditch the clip art. This is a writing competition, not a painting competition. I want to read words not browse the entire catalogue of clip art on your computer.

3. Don’t write any comments for the judges. I once saw an entry that had the following handwritten note on the top - “I know the word count is 2000 words. This is 9000 but the quality of my writing is excellent.” Er... it wasn’t. Rules are rules no matter what the quality.

4. Put the right postage on your submission. The Royal Mail charges the addressee the difference and then applies a £1 surcharge for underpaid entries. No competition pays for the writer’s mistakes.

5. Treat your competition submission like any other submission. Grip the judge with an exciting opening paragraph and then deliver a confident resolution.

Good luck!

Simon Whaley is a tutor for the Writers Bureau and a freelance writer and author. He has judged competitions on behalf of literary festivals, local writers’ groups, and the National Association of Writers’ Groups. Simon’s short stories have appeared in People’s Friend, Take a Break, Ireland’s Own, Yours and also That’s Life Fast Fiction in Australia. His ninth book, the Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking was published at the end of March 2009.