Writing contests: dos and don’ts

As a crime writer, I get asked to judge writing contests and awards competitions. I’m honored to do so. And when I read a wonderful entry, my heart sings.

But far too often, especially in open competitions, the entries fall short of being publishable or anywhere in the vicinity of professional. That’s sad. So here are a few suggestions. When submitting an entry to a crime writing competition:


1. Proofread.

Let me say that another way. Proofread. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

In one recent awards competition I was first shocked, then disappointed, then sad and resigned, that a third of the entries had frequent misspellings, typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation disasters. Now, I understand how hard it is to turn in a pristine document. Everybody’s fingers slip on the keyboard. It’s devilishly tough for an author to catch every error, despite multiple readings and despite running spellcheck. I also understand that in competitions for young authors or authors who’ve never previously published, it’s unreasonable to expect every entrant to know all the middling conventions of punctuation. I’ll make allowances for this, especially in contests designed to encourage fledgling talent. Writing takes work, and submitting takes confidence. Kudos to everybody with the guts to do it and the stomach to risk missing out on the prize.

But when I see entries with typos on every page — or two, or three, or five typos on every page — I feel disrespected. I feel that the author couldn’t be bothered even to read through his own document to see whether sentences had commas, or dialogue had quotation marks, or paragraphs were indented. That’s sloppy, lazy, and confusing to the reader. The story might be vivid, but if the presentation of the work is so slapdash that it slows and frustrates the reader, you’ve lost.

Seriously: 50 typos in a ten-page submission? That’s not a winner.

2. Print out your document before you e-mail it.

A chunk of text might look one way on your computer screen and another when printed out. Double check scene breaks, page breaks, and chapter breaks. Put titles and page numbers in a header or footer. Otherwise your submission might end up, as one I read recently, with the story title inserted into the body of the text at random points on each page. It was the text version of Where’s Waldo.

Also note: The U.S. and UK use different sized paper as standard. The US uses US Letter (8.5 x 11″) and the UK uses A4 (8.3 x 11.7″). If you are submitting electronically, realize that your work may eventually be printed out and read on paper sized differently than you use at home. Preview your document using the correct paper size.

3. Spellcheck and use a dictionary.

All the words in your submission should be spelled correctly. Spellcheck will help with this. But spellcheck is only a first step. Just because a word exists, it doesn’t mean you’re using it correctly. That’s why, if you’re unsure, you should look up the definition. This goes beyond your/you’re and there/their/they’re. It means understanding the difference between conscious and conscience, or Monica and moniker.

These suggestions are just the beginning. I’ll add some don’ts in my next post.

14 responses to “Writing contests: dos and don’ts

  1. Well, I’m pleased to say I ticked all of those boxes for my recent entry into a crime-writing competition. And after revising, revising, and revising some more, I’ve still made further tweaks (post-entry) as the novel has progressed.

    And regarding the proofreading, I think it’s useful to get someone else to help with that too. My mind always reads what it thinks I’ve written. That isn’t always what I have written, though.

    Oh, and nice moniker, Monica.

  2. What contest did you recently judge?

  3. “But spellcheck is only a first step.” Too true, too true. Otherwise with descriptions like I used in a college creative writing course: bales of cotton white hair (what’s the text markup for shudder-inducing?). Or, there was this gem for an Internet wag a few years ago: I always try to masturbate big words into conversation, even if I don’t know what they mean.

  4. Great tips, Meg. With high schoolers, peer editing and required revisions help elicit half-way decent writing (i.e, writing that isn’t drafted in the wee hours before a deadline). Over the years I’ve found that reading one’s writing aloud — besides helping catch mechanical errors — helps one hear awkward or wordy phrasing. Anyone else read their writing aloud? There’s something about hearing your words vibrate in the air to make you thoughtful about word choice.

    • Reading aloud is an excellent technique. It instantly exposes awkward or inauthentic dialogue, for starters.

      And I’m sure your students’ work has been vastly improved thanks to Ms. Hiker Chick’s classes.

  5. Tell it, sister! I reached a marking nadir recently with a paper from an upper-year student that was missing indentations for new paragraphs and quotation marks around quotations. All of the tips in the post and comments (Hiker Chick, I blow kisses in your direction) are in my teaching arsenal and I would add reading the paper aloud, sentence by sentence, from the end so that each sentence is isolated. However, my conclusion is that you can lead a horse to water, hold its head down into the trough, and at least half the time it will suck the water up through its nose and drown. I feel a sabbatical coming on.

  6. Pingback: Writing contest dos and don’ts, part 2 | lying for a living

  7. Ha, ha, Patti, you’re hilarious! Grading a set of essays now and am witnessing some drownings first-hand — despite every conceivable bit of pre-writing, modeling, direction, coaching. Nothing short of giving personal, detailed feedback to the clueless helps. Keep fighting the good fight. At least kids will exit our classes a little less illiterate than when they entered. In the meantime, what about part-time or a nice sabbatical if the bag of peas fails?

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