The Ultimate “How To” Writing Book by Christopher Fielden.
Amazon: 5 starts.
Order a FREE taster PDF
BUY the Book

Follow me on Twitter.
Find me on Facebook.
My Facebook Business Page.
Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Circle me on Google.
Subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Subscribe to my mailing list

* indicates required

Do You Make These 7 Big Mistakes When Entering Story Contests?

by Dr John Yeoman, PhD, Founder of Writers' Village

Quick links on this page:

Introduction by Chris Fielden

John Yeoman runs the Writers Village website and has many years of experience as a short story competition judge under his proverbial belt.

Writers Village logo

John has drawn on that experience in this post. He shares some of the common mistakes he sees and provides you with solutions that will improve your short story writing and give you a much better chance of penning an award winning story.

I'd like to say a humongous thank you to John for writing this incredibly useful post.

As always, comments are welcome - see the form at the bottom of the page.

back to top

Do You Make These 7 Big Mistakes When Entering Story Contests? by John Yeoman

Foot on Banana Skin

How do you win a short story contest? What's the secret way to catch a judge's eye?

I think I know. How come? Since 2009, I've judged more than 6,000 entries in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award, one of the world's premier contests for new writers. I've given away at least $15,000 in prizes. Who gets the top awards?

No, it's not (entirely) a judgement call. I try to stay fair and minimize subjectivity by rating each story – initially – across seven strict criteria. Those ratings tell me which stories might, at least, make the shortlist. And which suffer from fatal errors that hold them back.

All professional judges – I can't answer for the other sort – use a similar process, whether consciously or not.

Here are the mistakes I look for. Most stories, even if well written, have at least one or two. But too many can damn an entry long before it reaches the short-list.

Avoid these errors and you could well win a prize.

Typing Error

Mistake #1: Failure to Engage the Reader

We've all read stories that are brilliantly written. They're full of show-off words, astute descriptions or quirky plot devices. We put them down, thinking “how clever.” But then “so what?”

They're exercises, essays, a celebration of language. They don't engage us emotionally.

Solution: Present at least one character whom the reader can relate to.Then put that character in conflict with something. Anything.

The threat may be awesome or trivial. Your tone can be sombre or humorous, whatever you choose. But the reader must be able to bond with somebody in that story who faces a predicament that disturbs them emotionally.

Mistake #2: A Clichéd Plot

You have to read a lot of stories to spot a repetition in plot patterns. It's not always obvious.

Entrants can't be blamed for re-inventing, accidentally, The Monkey's Paw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or even Romeo and Juliet. Nor is there any harm in it, provided those long-whiskered plots are given an original twist. (We're often told that Shakespeare stole all his plots. And so he did.)

But how often have I read entries that featured such clichéd themes as...

  • A visit to a dying loved one, who makes a terrible death-bed confession?
  • An embarrassing funeral where the deceased turns out to be married to six women, each ignorant of the other?
  • A homicidal clown, nurse, child crossing superintendent, etc? (Stephen King has done that to death.)
  • The victim of a car crash who wanders around, dazed, not realizing he's a ghost?

And so on.

If that's all there is to the plot, the story will fail. It's déjà vu.

Solution: Begin with a clichéd idea. But develop it in unpredictable ways. Your story may become powerful indeed, because it's grounded in a theme that has proven – across the ages – to be emotionally engaging.

Mistake #3: A Weak Opening

This mistake has killed many an otherwise fine entry. The story doesn't get going until page two. Paragraphs one to four are weighed down by scene or character descriptions, back story or inconsequential events. The reader yawns.

Solutions: Put your Indispensable Incident, the crucial event which drives the story, in paragraph one. Drop the reader straight into the plot. End the first section with a strong inducement for us to read on – an uncertainty, unresolved question, or note of suspense. ('Suspense' means literally 'hanging between two points'.)

If you're writing literary fiction – perhaps a nuanced exploration of human relationships where 'suspense' may not be appropriate – at least enchant us with the power of your style.

“This author can write!” we say. We're encouraged to read on. We're in good hands.

(Note: just be sure you have a great tale to tell us as well!)

Mistake #4: An Indecisive Close

There's a big difference between the story that ends deliberately on a note of ambiguity and the one that fades away. A short story, like a novel, may be considered as a metaphor for a human life. We like to feel it has a meaning, both throughout and at the close.

The gritty 'slice of life' story that goes nowhere will fail, howsoever well it's written.

Solution: Make it very clear that the tale has ended. It has travelled a journey and emphatically reached its destination.

To be sure, it can end with many questions still unresolved. That's life. Henry James's classic story The Turn Of The Screw has been acclaimed for its ambiguous ending. Is it a ghost story? Or a murder mystery? Or just the hallucinations of a mad governess? No matter. It works. The close says – unequivocally – 'this tale is done'.

Mistake #5: Poor Structure

Many entries are like a bag of potatoes. Each potato may be good in its own way but together they form a shapeless mass.

Scenes digress. Few are clearly linked. The plot thread is obscure. “What was that all about?” the reader thinks, throwing the story down.

Solution: Plot your story beforehand, scene by scene. Make sure there's a logical connection between each incident, even if you have to hide the links en route, all the better to intrigue us.

To be sure, some writers – also known as 'pantsers' – like to 'go with the flow'. Nothing wrong with that. Just tidy up your tale a few days later so it has a firm structure.

Here's an easy way to do that. Print your story out in very small type, say 8 point, with both margins justified – the way it might appear in a printed paperback. Then you can inspect its structure visually.

Strike a red pen through every scene that appears out of place or digressive or doesn't pull its weight. Either cut that scene or whip it back into the structure.

Your story should form a unity. A judge must be able to think “It's a perfect whole. Nothing could usefully be added to it or taken away.”

Mistake #6: Flabby Writing

This is wholly a question of style. You don't need to be reminded to watch out for clichés, misused words, sloppy usages or long-winded phrases. You'll correct them in your revised draft. ('She gave every indication of concern' becomes 'She frowned', etc.)

But a judge will wince at sentences that ramble on forever or paragraphs that sustain the same rhythm, page after page... They will kill your chances of a prize.

Solution: Give the story pace. How? Balance the sentence lengths. Follow short ones with long ones, and vice versa. Do the same with paragraphs. And inject dialogue. It brings a story alive.

Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments at moments of tension. (On such occasions, verbs are optional.)

Imitate the rhythm of a heart beat. Systole/diastole. Urgency/tranquility. It keeps the reader – and the judge – awake.

Mistake #7: Amateur Presentation

Why should poor presentation be a story killer? After all, if J. K. Rowling submitted a story to her agent today, written in lipstick on the back of a Kleenex tissue, it would still get published. And sell a million copies. But we're not Rowling.

Present your story meticulously, according to the format demanded by the contest rules. If no particular format is indicated, pretend you're sending a story to an agent or publisher and follow those rules. (You'll find plenty of guidelines on the web.)

Does that go without saying? No.

In every round I've had to downgrade stories that were presented with no discernible margins. Or that included cute graphics in the cover page or headers. Or that were typed in an exotic 9 point font, in unreadable yellow. (True.) Or that merely consisted of a link to a Dropbox file I couldn't access...

All screamed “Amateur!” They did the story no good at all.

Solution: follow the contest rules. (Every contest is different.)

Some entrants don't. Sadly, I have to reject around one entry in ten because it exceeds our permitted word length. And more than one contestant has sent me a poem, playscript, essay or illustrated book although our web site states clearly that entries are restricted to short prose fiction of no more than 3,000 words.

Read the rules! And you'll be ahead of the game...

Wrong Way

Conclusion

If you avoid those seven errors your story – all else being equal – stands an excellent chance of arriving in the contest short list. What happens then?

In an ideal competition, the top entries would be assessed by several independent expert judges who would infallibly choose one overall winner and rank the rest in identical orders of excellence.

It doesn't happen.

Give ten good stories to ten professional judges and you'll get ten different winners. With rankings all over the place. Plus fisticuffs among the judges.

So one judge has to play Solomon, sift the winners out of the short-list, and suffer a sleepless night.

Trust me, I've been there...

In a professionally run contest, the ultimate stage of judging – where the top three winners are ranked in order – is always subjective. (Disbelieve anyone who says it's not.) That's why, if your story has ranked highly in any reputable contest, you can be sure it's a great story. Given different judges, it might well have won first prize.

Submit the story at once to other contests, provided their rules allow it.

And keep entering contests. Because, if you avoid the seven mistakes above, one day you will win a top prize.

You'll also gain a lot of Short-listed and Highly Commended awards en route. Agents and publishers truly are impressed by evidence of wins in major contests. They show you're a professional – the kind of writer who gets published.

What other kind would they want to deal with?

back to top

John Yeoman's Biography

John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist. He judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. 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.

back to top

How To Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money

If you found the information in this post useful, you might like my book. It's called ‘How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money’ and does what it says on the proverbial tin.

Dr John Yeoman contributed a section to the book, so you can read more of his wisened words and learn more from his years of expertise within its pages.

You can also read lots of my published short stories which are used as case studies to clearly illustrate how the advice in the book was used in real life to achieve publishing success.

How to Write a Short Story, book by Christopher Fielden

back to top


Leave your comments

Please use the form below to leave your comments. All comments will be reviewed so won't appear on the page instantly. I will not share your details with anyone else. Most recent comments appear at the bottom of the page, oldest at the top.

Your Details:

Please prove you're a human by entering the security code in the box below: 5687

Comments:

Your comments:

Ginny S
Hi John, an excellent piece on how to win (or at least enter correctly!) writing competitions.

Would you allow me to use this for my students of writing? Only once they have finished the nine modules and are set free into the literary world I'd love to send them this - with a big acknowledgement to you of course and suggested they sign on for your very useful newsletter at the same time.

John Y
How can I say No, Ginny? That sounds like a plan!

Ginny S
Thanks John! We’re only talking about 20 students per year in South Africa, UK and New Zealand. But will spread your fame further and wider than ever before.

Simon P
These tips are great, but it's a bit like providing all the scales and musical theory to someone and saying now you can write a top ten hit. Start with an intro, then have a catchy chorus, a middle 8 and finish with a reprise, etc.

I think a bit of a stardust has to be there in the first place. Maybe I'm being purist and idealistic, but if everyone followed these rules we would have millions of Dick Francis - "A shot rang out..." - and no Will Selfs. I suppose it's possible to strike a balance between satisfying yourself creatively and sticking to a formula to get published. But never forget that writing is self entertainment and you've got to spend hours on your own - so you better enjoy the way you are writing and what you are writing about. If you are stuck in a forumla it could quickly feel like a chore and the muse could die....

John Y
Thanks, Simon. I agree totally. 'A bit of stardust has to be there in the first place.' You can't write a great story 'by the numbers', any more than you can paint the Sistine Chapel from a formula. But you can judge a story, initially, by seeing if its structure and craft work are competent. If a tale ticks all the boxes, it becomes a judgement call. That's when judges weep. Because there are only so many prizes on the table!

Jan H
Superb article.

Chris Fielden
Glad you like it, Jan.

Alex M
Those are really useful, thanks.

I’m helping to short-list an open competition, and they’ll help me focus my second reading of each I’m sure of that.

In particular, they’ll help to find ways of giving positive feedback/guidance to new writers.

And, selfishly, all of this will help improve my own writing.

Had you thought of that before me?

Chris Fielden
I had indeed, Alex. You can learn loads from being involved with judging a competition. It's certainly helped me improve my own writing a lot.

John Y
Absolutely, Alex. Most writers enter story contests for encouragement and feedback, not for the money. That's why I've always told entrants at the Writers' Village award, on request, how their stories were graded and given them some quick tips for improvement. The worst thing a contest judge can do is to demoralize an entrant. Who knows, maybe you've just destroyed the next J. K. Rowling?

Alex M
Thank you both very much indeed. I couldn’t ask for better.

Allen A
Hi Chris, thanks for this. Spot on advice from John Yeoman. I shall share it with my groups at a convenient moment.

Chris Fielden
Thanks very much Allen :-)

Stuart A
As usual, words of wisdom from a man who knows. John's posts are always worth reading and I've added the link to this post to my Writing Contests Table on my own blog, so that more people can have a chance of entering to win.

Thanks for sharing this, Christopher. A good, pragmatic and useful post.

John Y
It's good to see you here, Stuart. I'm delighted that you'll be mentioning the post on your excellent blog. My warmest thanks, as always.

John S
Very instructive comments and advice for all types of story writing. Thank you.

Chris Fielden
Thanks Stuart & John :-)

John Y
Many thanks, John. I appreciate it!

Kate B
Thank you for the tips. My main weakness, in my opinion, is not having a strong beginning. I think that jumping right into the action, then going back and introducing the reason for the action later in the story might be a better way for me to go.

John Y
Greetings, Kate. That's a good way to start. Don't forget the 'book end' technique either. Take a theme or phrase or incident from your first scene and repeat it in your last scene, with a subtle twist. It will give the story a hidden sense of unity and structure. (Yes, the ploy is formulaic but it works.) Your repeated phrase, etc, will then convey a new - possibly ironic - significance.

Better still, write your last scene first. Then you'll know where you're going!

Kate B
Writing the ending first is a concept that I had never considered. That's a good idea. I usually let my mind wander, adding events as they occur to me. In my series, the main characters need to survive for the next trip, but I am now on 3 of 4, so one or two could be eliminated. In book 2, one of the minor characters was the victim of the serial killer that joined the group. This character was eventually identified and arrested. His dog was adopted by another group member and will play a major role in book 3.

John Y
That's a fruitful concept, Kate. I call it the Pink Thread. You introduce a character - apparently inconsequential - in an early scene who vanishes, only to reappear in the last scene. Their main function is to tie the structure together and give it a pleasing sense of unity. However, they can also cue a sequel. The Pink Thread character becomes very important in your next story.

Pink Thread characters can weave a sub-plot behind the story which has no direct bearing on the main plot but serves to add useful colour, information and Characterising Incidents en route.

Wendy S
I like these tips. Unfortunately, I have a hard time telling if any of these have crept into my work. I would love it if anyone want to check out my short story entry that didn't make the short list and offer some ideas why.

Andrew S
It would have been a bit more helpful, or helpful period, if you included how many of the 7 major mistakes one must avoid to win a contest. My fear is that one might avoid all seven and still not win. That is because all 7 mistakes you mentioned, are on a sliding scale. They are judged on hopelessly comparative or else on hopelessly subjective measures. How does the writer know which judge values what more and what less, in a creative endeavour?

I have come to the conclusion that if someone writes well, their chances of winning are larger than zero, but they still place randomly. This is especially so if there are more than one tier of judges. The sense of humour of a male judge may be completely different from the sense of humour of  a female judge, and I know I am being sexist here, but with a reason and with a solid base of seeing who finds what funny and who does not. Benny Hill, the Three Stooges and Monthy Python are hardly ever appreciated by women, while a guy goes rolling in the isles.

So this proposal of yours is much simplified and the real-life challenges in submitting winning entries are much more complex than you stated here. What you wrote are not winning strategies, but avoiding losing strategies. And the two are entirely different from each other.

John Y
You're absolutely right, Andrew. My post detailed the errors to avoid. It did not - nor could it, in the space available - suggest the diverse ways in which a story might win. It took me three years in a PhD program to write a doctoral thesis on what constitutes a 'successful' story. My own Writers' Village Academy comprises 64 successive weeks of intensive tutorials in the myriad techniques by which an author can perfect their craft. And still, I have only scratched the surface...

I agree with you that aesthetic judgements are ultimately subjective. I won't venture here into the sexist aspects of reader response except to acknowledge that they exist. Of course, they do. A 'sensibilious' tale of human relationships that might enchant my wife would leave me emotionally untouched. Yet I'd still know how to judge that story.

Every contest presents a different filter. The tale that goes nowhere in one award will waltz away with prize #1 in another. That's why I suggested, in my post, that a story that reaches a Highly Commended mention in one contest, or better, should be submitted at once to another contest. And another. (If their rules permit.) Judges are human. And every human has a different sensibility.

Andrew S
Dear John, I was moved by your reply. On one hand because you seemed to have agreed wholeheartedly with my "contest entrant's blues", but more deeply, because you cared enough to write back to me.

Your narrative and voice was neither choppy, like in the article, nor a popularizing one; it was deep and thoughtful, wise and solid. It was written by a likable person, while the article left me sort of cold as to the persona of the leading character.

Thanks for answering my letter with the care and insight you seemed to have thought it deserved.

Allow me please one more addition to the topic, which I am sure you are aware of, and I only mention it for the sake of a closer approach to completeness.

I wrote a very long, rhyming poem to Buddha, and it made two grown men weep. They literally cried as they were reading it, and afterward. One was in his eighties, the other, in his forties at the time, just a bit younger than I. Both grew up in Europe. One was involved heavily in expat culture and the arts, from Poland; the other, the one in his eighties, had immigrated to Canada from Hungary.

I showed the same poem to two Canadian natives. One was getting impatient while reading it, and the other was thrown by the - to her - unnatural-sounding rhymes in the poem. English readers don't enjoy rhyming poetry, but the reception was much more negative than the rhymes alone would warrant.

Culture, cultural background, and culture-directed subjectivism, with all their accouterments, therefore, also influence, in the main, the judgment of literary critics.

This is not to say that emotions, poetry, style, and the power residing in each are not transferable across cultural boundaries. It just says that the resultant success of the power's transfer is unpredictable. Much like many other aspects of writing as judged by literary critics in competitions.

John Y
Andrew, you're a wise and kind gentleman - I too was moved by your reply. (I truly was.) I entirely agree that 'culture, cultural background, and culture-directed subjectivism influence literary critics.' Indeed, there's an entire sub-discipline within litcrit dedicated to Reader Response theory. Essentially, it says that authors do not spin stories, readers do. Every reader creates their own story from the prompts given, so there is no such thing as a definitive reading, rating or critique.

I wish you every success in your future writing endeavours!

Jenn S
Thanks for all the information. I especially liked the conclusion. It's hard to always be a bridesmaid and never the bride but I know I'm not alone.

Chris Fielden
Thanks Jenn, glad you found it useful :-)

Cathleen T
Excellent article. Thanks so much for all the tips :)

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Cathleen :-)

Cathleen T
My pleasure. And thanks so much for your comments on my story, Feral Refrigerator. I think I'll post it on AbsoluteWrite for feedback. It's a bit of potluck there, but I've gotten some great feedback in the past. And some of the members are from the UK.

I enjoyed your site. I'll definitely be visiting again. :)

Chris Fielden
Good luck with AbsoluteWrite – I hope that works out for you :-)

Loraine S
Hi Dr Yeoman, I'm a female antique grand-mater-familias but have had a few rhyming lines published in Mslexia, was shortlisted in last year's Writers' and Artists' Year Book Short Story Competition and had my response to Shakespeare's Sonnet 132 read out at the V&A museum this year - together with all the other poets' contributions, of course. 

I just wanted to apprise you that I think your module, set out above, is worth at least about three years' worth of local Creative Writing Session attendances.  In my 'late autumn' I surrendered to fatigue and laziness but a quick read through your wonderful, clear, totally comprehensible guidelines will now always buck up my confidence and strength to continue trying everything.  I don't have the patience to be on any social media at all and don't want to self-publish but aim to complete a portfolio to my satisfaction and bowl it round the market to selected publishers.  Thanks so much for your succinct booster.

John Y
That's a wonderful accolade, Loraine. I greatly appreciate it. Congratulations on your success. 'An antique grand-mater-familias'? That's a synonym for wisdom and serenity! May I quote your kind words as a testimonial at my Writers' Village site?

Loraine S
By all means use my accolade.

Incidentally, I'm not too sure about the wisdom and serenity, as I was married and divorced twice before I was thirty-two. Anyhow, think I may have 'done something good somewhere' as I'm enjoying three smashing grandchildren.

Colin T
I not only found the above points easy to follow but also a very useful means of judging my own efforts.

Viewing each point as a test of sorts, I found to my great relief that I pass each one (but only just, on two of them).

Thank you very much John Yeoman for devising them and Chris Fielden for publishing them.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Colin. Glad you enjoyed the post.

I'm very sad to say that John passed away recently - he was always great at acknowledging comments like this and encouraging others.

Still, thank you and I wish you the best of luck with your writing.

Kathryn M
As proof of how subjective judging can be, I suggest reading The Best American Short Stories of 2016. I guarantee more than a few of the stories will leave you scratching your head and asking yourself, What was that all about? If anyone can justify including 'Bridge', by Daniel J. O'Malley, I'd love to hear from them. Inscrutable openings, show-off prose, and endings that suggest the writer had no idea how to wrap it up seem to prevail. On the other hand, a few of the stories are truly brilliant, in my opinion.

Chris Fielden
Hi Kathryn. Writing (or any form of art) is highly subjective. I see that from the judging panel on the competition I run. That's why panels are fairer, I think - a variety of tastes are taken into account so the stories with the widest appeal win.

Still, it sounds like the book you mentioned has a wide variety of stories in it, if nothing else :-)

Lisa NG
Thank you for these tips. They are really helping me as I am a first time writer! I have written a short story and I wondered if there were a maximum number of words for the story to be entered into short story competitions. I think my story will have 19,000 words... many, many thanks for your help x

Chris Fielden
Hi Lisa. 19,000 words is a pretty high word count for a short story... really, that's a novella. You can learn more about story lengths here.

There are a few competitions for novellas. And some short story competitions and magazines do accept longer stories. But the vast majority have word count limits below 10,000 words.

You can learn more about that on the competition lists in the Advice section of my website.

I hope that's helpful :-)

Lisa NG
Thank you so much for this advice. I really appreciate it. What I have written is a true story... I think I would like to publish it, but it is such a difficult process and I do have a crisis of confidence! I will put it forward to some of the novella comps.

Thank you again.

Chris Fielden
Hi Lisa. No problem.

Entering competitions is a great idea. Over the years, I’ve grown a skin thicker than Godzilla’s – rejection is just part of being a writer unfortunately. So I’d ignore any doubt and just get it submitted. Even if you’re unsuccessful, you might gain some useful feedback about your work.

The other thing you could consider is self-publishing. I use CreateSpace to publish my books. It’s free to use. It’s owned by Amazon, so distributing your book is easy too. That might be worth a look if you don’t get it published by a competition or magazine.

I wish you the best of luck with it all :-)

Meher H
John, I love reading short stories and I also write occasionally. My language is Bengali and some of my stories have been published in local newspapers. Now that I have retired from my job and have more time to invest in writing short stories, I have translated some of my stories into English. I read about the 7 big mistakes and am trying to rephrase my writing.

Thanks a lot, I am immensely benefited. Hope to be in touch more closely in future.

Chris Fielden
Hi Meher. Thanks for your comment. I'm sad to say that John passed away last year. He was a highly inspirational and active part of the online writing community. I'm sorry to have to be the bearer of this bad news. However, I'm glad to hear you found his advice helpful and wish you the best of luck with editing your stories.

Meher H
Hi Chris. Really sorry to hear that. May God bless his departed soul. I benefited immensely from his advice. I'll try to write a story regarding John passing away.

Chris Fielden
Hi Meher. Thanks, that’s really nice of you :-)