By Emmanuel Nataf
We all dream about getting published one day. But the road to seeing our names in print? That depends on how you choose to go about it. Some plunge in and start churning out a novel, while others may find themselves wandering down the e-zine alley. Still others might give up entirely and decide to work their way up in the publishing world a different way.
Then there are the multitudes of writers out there entering contests.
Legitimate writing contests offer an enviably clear route forward — many even include cash prizes in addition to publication on a website or in a magazine. Add a dram of prestige as the cherry on top, and it’s a great way to build a writing portfolio.
That said, winning a writing contest is easier said than done. Take it from us: at Reedsy, we’ve run a short story contest for the past two years. In that time, we’ve seen all sorts of errors that hamper writers’ chances from the get-go. To help you avoid them, we’ve compiled the 4 biggest mistakes to avoid when you’re submitting to a contest.
1. You didn’t check the rules
Rules, schmules, you might think. After all, fine print is always in small font because no-one needs to read them, right? Not quite! A writing contest’s rules exist for a reason. It’s always heartbreaking for a judge to have to pass on a good story simply because the writer didn’t bother to follow the instructions.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid this: simply check each writing contest’s website for its “Instructions,” “How to Apply,” “Guidelines,” or “FAQ” page. Without fail, you’ll find a section that states the contest’s stipulations for your manuscript.
Then comes the trickier part: remembering to follow these rules exactly. Does a contest ask for you to leave your name off of the manuscript? Do so. Does it ask for a maximum of 7,000 words? Don’t get smart and submit a story that’s 7,001 words. You’d just be playing with fire — or, perhaps more accurately, a judge’s fiery irritation! The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), for instance, which runs one of the biggest writing competitions in Canada, specifies that “not respecting the word count” is one of their biggest pet peeves. Play by the rules, and the judging panel will be able to judge the story, and not your questionable decisions.
2. The presentation is lackluster
Speaking of rules, you may notice that some writing contests ask for your story to be formatted in a specific fashion. Double-spacing is one popular request, as is 11- or 12-point font.
If no particular guidelines are included, try to keep it simple, stupid. Tiny margins, unrelated photos of your cat, and fluorescent fonts are to be avoided. This screams “amateur”— the opposite of the first impression that you want to make.
A good rule of thumb is to stick with 12-point Times New Roman font. Sure, it might be a “boring” font — it’s been called the “sweatpants” of fonts — but it’s popular for a reason: it’s professional, legible, and won’t scar anyone’s eyes. Most importantly, it’s so inconspicuous that it will allow readers to focus on what really matters: the content of your story.
3. You forgot to proofread
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably come across this advice once or a trillion times— but it’s so important that it does bear repeating.
In a nutshell, don’t forget to proofread your own piece before you submit it! A typo or two is forgivable — though it isn’t a great look — but I can’t tell you how many short stories we’ve had to put in the ‘rejection’ pile, simply because there were so many errors it hampered the readability of the piece.
Happily, typos are easily fixable once you’re looking for them. So make sure that you said “the” and not “teh,” “it’s” and not “its,” and “their” and not “thier.” Mistakes regarding dialogue conventions are another tragically common speedbump that we see all the time. (If you need practice with dialogue, check out this post.)
I generally recommend at least two read-throughs: one thorough proof and another quick sweep at the end to clean up anything that might have slipped through the net earlier. Proofreading is one of the prime rules when it comes to writing a book, and it applies to short stories just the same. You don’t want to go to all this trouble of writing a story just to cross the t but forget to dot the i.
4. You waited until the last minute
Procrastination is every writer’s secret weapon when it comes to writer’s block — for some mysterious reason, words start magically flowing out of authors whenever there’s a deadline coming up.
This isn’t a great technique in general. But when a writing contest is concerned, it may be even worse.
If you wait until the last minute to write and submit your story, here’s a quick list of things that might go awry (many of which we’ve seen for ourselves while running our short story contest at Reedsy):
- You might send the wrong file;
- You might address it to Bristol Short Story Prize when you meant to submit to the Bridport International Writing Competition;
- You might include incomplete supplementary materials;
- You might lose the race against the clock and end up submitting at 12:03AM — past the competition’s deadline.
In short, submitting at the last minute leaves the door wide-open for careless blunders. Be kind to yourself (and your sanity) — give yourself at least a couple of days before the deadline to finish your short story. This will give you plenty of time to double-check the rules and proofread your submission before hitting that “SUBMIT” button.
Of course, what’s most important at the end of the day is the short story’s quality! But if you take care to avoid these four mistakes, I can guarantee that you’ll be able to submit submit your story with a lot more peace of mind.
Emmanuel Nataf is the founder and CEO of Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers and marketers. Emmanuel dedicates much of his time to building Reedsy’s product and is interested in how technology can transform cultural industries.