18 Contest Dos and Don’ts for Writers

Writer’s Digest sponsors many competitions each year in which we hire editors, agents and published authors to judge. As a result, we hear and experience a great deal of judge feedback about entries. Here, we’ve assembled a list of secrets to help your entries rise to the top of the judges’ “save” piles:

1. Do send only your best work. If you’ve got a script of which you’re very proud and three others you know need work, keep working on those three and send your best. Why spend your money or waste exposure with a judge on work that isn’t the best it can be?

2. Do check your spelling and grammar. Then, ask someone else to do it. A stray comma won’t cause a judge to eliminate your entry. However, writing a short story set in Boston and spelling it Bosten for half the story probably will. Use your computer spelling and grammar functions, but don’t rely exclusively upon them. Incorrect usage of its vs. it’s won’t show up in a computer spelling check, and suggested grammatical changes often don’t apply.

3. Do check your continuity. Then, ask someone else to do it. If your protagonist is named John at the beginning, don’t start calling him Doug halfway through the story. If your character took at nap at 2 p.m., don’t have him in the middle of a marathon at 3 p.m. Similarly, your poem is either unrhymed or rhymed; don’t do both in the same poem.

4. Don’t forget to count your pages. There’s nothing more disappointing than receiving only four out of five pages of an excellent entry. Most judges will simply sigh and discard the entry rather than contacting the contest sponsors about having the writer send the missing page. Before you close the envelope, make sure every page is there.

5. Don’t forget to check formatting requirements. If entries are supposed to be typed on white paper, don’t use pink to try to set your entry apart. You will set it apart, but not in a positive way. If the rules say the entry must be double-spaced, don’t send work spaced 1.5 lines. If the rules say your name, address, phone number and the category being entered must appear in the upper left-hand corner of each page, don’t put that information in the lower right-hand corner. Judges generally won’t disqualify you if you break these rules, but many notice the violations and subconsciously penalize the entry.

6. Do enter early. Early-bird entry fees are cheaper. It doesn’t mean don’t enter last minute, but if you can submit early, do it because it’ll generally save you a few bucks.

7. Do make an entry checklist. Have you included: A. the entry form, filled out completely, B. the entry fee (if needed), C. your entry, D. the correct format for your entry, and E. any other required materials? Check the envelope twice. Then ask a friend to check it a third time.

8. Do use the correct amount of postage. If you don’t, it’s likely the competition will have to pay the postage due. Is that really the initial impression you want to give?

9. Do send the correct amount for the entry fee. Some contests offer early bird specials if your entry is received on or before a certain date, and any entries received after that date require an additional amount of money for the fee. Use a proper payment method; most contests do not accept cash. If you use a charge card, make sure it is a card that the competition can process.

10. Do send your entry to the address exactly as it is listed on the form. Don’t decide that, because you’re friends with someone who works at the magazine or is on the organization’s board, you will send your entry to that person to get an “in.” It is unlikely that person is involved in initial judging, and it’s possible your entry won’t get to the right person via interoffice mail until after the deadline.

11. Do follow the word limit. If you’re to send a poem of no more than 32 lines, don’t send one that’s 33 lines. If you’re to send a short story of 2,500 words, don’t send one of 3,000. Even if you survive the initial round of judging, many competitions have learned through bitter experience to count the number of words in the winning entries before making a final selection. Scanning entries into a word processing document makes it easy to get a word count.

12. Do follow the rules on confirming receipt of your entry. If you want proof it arrived beyond getting your canceled check or charge card receipt, or beyond the eventual arrival of a critique if that is part of the competition, check the rules. Some contests will let you enclose a self-addressed stamped postcard or envelope that can be sent back to you to confirm delivery. If a contest doesn’t do that, send your entry via a mail mode or delivery service that will provide you with a receipt. If you submit via e-mail, set up your e-mail under Options or Preferences so that you are notified when your entry arrives and/or is read.

13. Do understand the rights situation. In some contests, your entry becomes the property of the sponsor. That means you can never enter it in another competition, sell it or use part of the material verbatim in any other way. Think twice before you enter these contests. If the prize or the prestige is enough, that’s fine. But make sure you’ve made an educated decision.

14. Don’t send more than one copy of the same entry. The only exception is if the contest asks for more than one copy. Contests that do not take rights related to entries typically ask judges to discard nonwinners. Remember that the contest budget includes payment of prizes; judges; and postage for entries to go to judges, for finalists to be returned to the contest, and for winners to be notified. It’s just not realistic to expect to get your entry mailed back as well.

15. Don’t call. If you don’t understand the rules, read them again. Generally, they are self-explanatory. You’re far more familiar with your work than are the people who run the competition. If you don’t know, check a dictionary or Writer’s Market for definitions of various types of writing. If that doesn’t help, go to a bookstore and see where you would place your work if it were published. Don’t call to see if your entry was received. Some competitions receive hundreds or thousands of entries, and in the weeks before the deadline, it’s impossible to interrupt the process to see whether an entry is received. If it’s important for you to know your entry was received, see No. 6 above on confirming receipt.

16. Do resubmit the entire entry if you discover a problem. If you forgot your check or your credit card was over its limit, send the entire entry again. If you’d like, attach a note saying you forgot to include the check in an earlier mailing. But don’t expect the competition staff to put together your entry, received Jan. 1, and your check, received Feb. 1.

17. Don’t include information they don’t want. Don’t attach a photo of yourself, your baby or your dog. Don’t attach a biographical statement if one isn’t requested. Don’t include a jacket of your latest book. Don’t send illustrations for your story. They’ll never make it to the judges, anyway.

18. Don’t obsess. If you find a typographical or grammatical error in your work a week after you’ve entered, don’t resubmit the entry and don’t call to ask the contest to make the correction. Your entry might not be retrievable at that point. Make the change in your own copy so that it’s right the next time you send it out.

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