How NOT To Win A Writing Contest: 7 Deadly Story Sins

by Dr. John Yeoman

Have you ever entered a short story contest and failed to win? And wondered why?

You may have made one or more of these seven 'killer' mistakes. How do I know? Since 2009, I've judged more than 6000 entries in the Writers' Village short story award. And I've given every contestant feedback on their entries.

I can honestly say that 99% of my contestants have been delighted. Many have revised their stories in line with my suggestions and gone on to see them published elsewhere.

Around 40% of my contestants have entered time and again across six years - more to get a critique, they say, than to win a prize. (I sometimes wonder why I offer prizes at all…)

That said, a few folk were not happy that they didn't win. It's understandable. We all fall in love with our stories and, if others don't love them, we take it personally.

Remember judging will always be subjective. Other judges might have different opinions or rank them in a different order. Every time I announce the winners I agonize over whether #3 should have been #2 or vice versa, or whether I've overlooked some hidden depth in a runner up.

One judge might give top marks to a prose poem that glitters with metaphor. Another might look for deep sensibility, a sensitive exploration of relationships that stirs us to the soul.

Some love Annie Proulx for her knotty, power packed syntax. Others adore the ethereality of Ian McEwan, Still others are biff-bang, meat-and-potato fans of Tom Clancy. We're all biased and I'll state it clearly here:

My own bias is for strong structure.

I like a story to tick like the proverbial Swiss watch. Take any little thing out (or put it in), and it stops working. If everything else in the story works, its unity of structure is the deciding factor.

How can you improve your chances in a contest? And win a four-figure cash award? By avoiding these errors.

Seven Killer Mistakes that Can Ruin Your Chances of Winning a Writing Contest

#1. Your story looks boring.

That's not what you expected, was it? You expected me to drone on about wondrous opening lines, sympathetic characters, clever plot ideas... Yes, I'll get to all that. But the first thing a judge or expert reader takes in, consciously or not, is the story's visual appearance. Does page one appear as a boring slab of text, unvaried by dialogue or paragraphs of different length?

If so, it suggests the story will be dull as well.

Either the writer has not been professional enough to insert carriage returns at key places or everything in the story will have the same cadence. A snore of tedium.

True, that rule can be broken. You can write long unbroken paragraphs, at times, and get away with it. But you'd better have a darned good reason.

#2. Your first paragraph is a bad advertisement for the story.

What genre do you write in? A story that aspires to literary fiction - and explores the nuances of moods, perceptions or relationships? Then it should engage us at once with the power and sensitivity of its language. Its command of form. The originality of its ideas.

A crime-suspense story may be written in a more mundane style but it must open with a mystery, hanging question or intriguing incident that compels the reader to read on. And so forth.

In your first fifty words let the reader know the genre of the story you're writing in, and give them a fast sample of your skills. Not sure of your story's genre? You're writing literary fiction.

#3. Your last paragraph fades away.

A lazy judge or agent (yes, they do exist, although not at Writers' Village) will read paragraph one then flip straight to your last scene to see how the story ends. If there's a hint of unity or satisfying structure - never mind what your story has to say - they'll read the whole work. If there's not, they won't.

BTW: A sneaky way to draft a winning story is to write your last paragraph first, then go back and write the story. At least, you'll know where you're heading. And your first and last paragraphs can now convey some teasing echo of the other - in their mood, symbol, incident or phrase.

That 'book end' structure is sneaky, it's formulaic, and it's certainly not apt for every tale. But it's amazing how often you'll find it in a winning story.

(I use this trick with most of my novels...Anne.)

#4. Your structure is all over the place.

In a short story, you typically have just 5000 words. Or less. There's no room for digression, padding or protracted scene setting. (Nor should there be in a novel.) Cut those scenes. "Impossible," you'll cry. "I spent a month writing them!"

Our limit in the Writers' Village contest is 3000 words. Strictly. In every round I have to reject around 10% of the stories entered because they were just too long. That hurts me. They were often good stories and could have been cut back so easily to the word limit, by 10% or even 30%.

Every story or novel can be cut and it will grow stronger.

#5. Your plot is a cliché.

According to Christopher Booker there are only Seven Basic Plots. (It's the title of his book.) He might have described those plots in one short page. Instead, he wrote 400,000 words to prove that just seven plots can be dressed up a thousand different ways. And so they can.

Don't worry if your plot is essentially Romeo & Juliet, or Huck Finn, or Cinderella. Don't fret that it's a cliché. (And it will be.) Give its structure a twist.

A homicidal clown? A visit to a dying parent where some Terrible Truth is finally revealed? A gentle coming-of-age story where the narrator discovers Love, the Universe and the wickedness of her Best Friend? It's all been done.

Just bring to it a fresh eye, clever language - and a new structure - and it can be done again.

#6. Your characters don't excite us.

"My people are drawn from life!" So one contestant reminded me. So what? The reader has to want to know them, if only to enjoy a shudder.

A Tip: to improve your structure, give the reader a comfortable 'seat' in your story, a single point-of-view character whose mind they can happily live in throughout the journey. Yes, you can head-hop through several different points of view, even in 3000 words, and your gamble might even work - if your plot is strong and your transitions skilful. But why take the risk?

#7. Your presentation screams 'amateur'.

A few typos can be forgiven. Spelling errors, aberrant commas, hyphens used instead of em dashes, single quotes around dialogue rather than double quotes (as The Chicago Manual of Style insists), and so forth. All convention is just opinion fossilized into dogma. But we'd better heed it.

And all authors nod.

But what a judge or agent won't forgive is the story set in tiny 9-point Helvetica type. (Always use Times Roman 12 point.) Or entirely in italics. Or that's laid out in a single unbroken paragraph. Or that has negligible margins. Or that includes second colours. Or graphics. (If you're keen on graphics, reserve them for your non-fiction.)

They all spell 'amateur'.

Should you use double line or 1½ spacing? Check the rules of submission. Contests usually insist on one or the other although both are ridiculous in this digital age. Sigh and do what the rules say. You'd be amazed at how many writers don't.

Good visual presentation is an aspect of structure. A judge will rate your presentation before they've even read your story.

NOTE: Make sure you avoid an amateur mentality as well. Here are four types I've run into. Every one had made a 'killer' mistake in their story, but they preferred to blame the judge.

*Conspiracy theorists: "My story is far better than any of the winners yet you didn't give me a prize. You're all in it together, judges, agents, publishers. Either you're blind to genuine talent or you have a secret agenda to destroy new authors. That's why my stories never get published!"

No, I don't exaggerate. I've had those emails. A few.

Let's take a reality check. Professional judges and agents - I can't answer for the others - know their business. If one or two turn down our work, that's happenstance. If ten do, something is wrong with our work.

*"You didn't understand my story." Sometimes I mark a story down, although it glows with craft techniques, because it's too cryptic. Maybe I could have understood it after a fifth reading... (Did I not once teach Finnegan's Wake?) But that's asking too much of the busy reader.

True, a studied ambiguity can give a story wondrous depth. What would The Turn of the Screw have been without its equivocal - and maddening - close?

Impenetrability is something else.

*"Your winning story twice misused a semi-colon." I get the odd protest - usually from English teachers - that a winning story was improperly punctuated, ungrammatical or otherwise philologically challenged. At times, it's true. How I've yearned to tidy up some stories!

Just one extra line at the close might have clinched them. Or a few close edits along the way. But short of correcting an obvious mistyping I can't tamper with a story.

Besides, if a story is otherwise outstanding, a few improprieties are a minor issue. If we get hung up over trifles, we've missed the point.

*"I didn't like the way you ranked the winning stories."
 I can judge only what I'm sent. The winners are, in my opinion, the best I received and they range from brilliant to darn good.

Avoid those seven errors and your entry should sail into the judge's 'maybe' pile. But will s/he clutch their throat, draw a ragged breath and gasp 'It works!'? As I do, at least a dozen times in every contest round? That cries out for another blog post entirely…

What mistakes have killed a story for you? What gross writing errors have you committed yourself? (Don't be shy. We've all made them.) Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Dr. John Yeoman, PhD. Creative Writing, judges the Writer's Village Story Competition and is a university tutor in creative writing in the UK.

He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village. You can follow him on Twitter @Yeomanis

 Writers' Village...helping new writers achieve publishing success

Win a £1000 ($1600) prize for your short story!


Cash prizes totaling £2000 ($3200) can be won in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award summer 2015 for prose fiction in any genre up to 3000 words.

The first prize is £1000 ($1600), with a second prize of £500 ($800)and third prize of £250 ($400). Five runner up prizes of £50 ($80) will be awarded to short-listed contestants.

Everyone wins because every contestant, win or lose, is shown on request how their stories were graded, and given helpful tips for the stories' improvement according to their grades!

Plus this big FREE book that brims with fresh ideas to help you win story contests. 

The Writers' Village award - now in its sixth year - is one of the world's few major story competitions that specifically welcomes new writers from anywhere in the English-speaking world. And the only one that gives detailed feedback on request to every contestant, win or lose, without extra charge.


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. They even have a video on You Tube to inspire you. Deadline July 15. 

Romance Novel Writing Competition! First prize is publication by Mills and Boon (Harlequin) and promoted by WH Smith and Kobo. Open to writers in the US, UK and Canada. Submit a synopsis and first chapter, up to a maximum of 5,500 words. Submission form on the site. Deadline July 14th

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

Chipotle Essay Contest for US Students Age13-18. FREE. Write an essay in 1700 characters or less. Ten prizes of $20,000 each in college scholarships. Plus your work on a Chipotle cup or bag. (Which is why it needs to be short.) Kids, this looks like a fun one! Deadline May 31.

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