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:
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.