One person I love having at the blog is Savannah Cordova from Reedsy, because she always has an innovative take on every subject. If you enter writing contests, this post is one you will want to read, because she offers a ton of great ideas on how to make your entry stand out. Enjoy!
If you’ve ever participated in a writing contest, you’ll know that it’s one of the most exhilarating, motivating, and overall craft-stimulating experiences you can have as a writer. Indeed, what starts off as a modest contest entry can even turn into a much bigger project, like a book.
However, the flip side of the coin is that if you’ve entered multiple writing contests and still haven’t won, the experience can become intimidating, demoralizing, and frustrating.
I’ve personally been on both sides of the contest conundrum: I’ve lost time and time again and felt incredibly discouraged, then had all faith in my writing restored after a win. And recently, my knowledge of writing contests has gained yet another dimension — the perspective of a judge, as I help decide the winner of a weekly contest we hold at Reedsy.
My experience as both a writing contest participant and a judge has given me a finely-honed sense of what contributes to a winning entry… and what doesn’t. To that end, here are five innovative strategies that could help you win — some of which I’ve used myself, some of which I’ve seen in action, but all of which have proven concretely successful (as you’ll see from the examples below).
1. Draw from a recent experience
“Write what you know” is some of the most oft-given writing advice for a reason. Writing about something you’ve personally seen, felt, or done lends the story an air of authenticity that’s nearly impossible to replicate in any other way.
My key addition to that advice is to make it recent: the fresher the experience, the stronger your writing about it will be. Of course, if you want to write about something from a long time ago that affected you deeply, that’s your prerogative — but you might find it hard to dredge up the words to describe something that happened months or years ago.
I’ve found that the more recent the experience, the more smoothly the words flow. Indeed, this was the tactic that I used for my story “Perspective,” which actually won the Reedsy short story contest last May (and led me to my current job). When I wrote “Perspective,” I was getting ready to move away from my family and feeling sentimental, which I indulged by watching old home videos. The intensity of emotion I felt then inspired me to write a story that started with a woman watching her home videos and see where things might go from there.
2. Subvert the prompt
Many contests provide writers with a prompt or theme to write about. In this case, another highly effective technique is to subvert the contest theme/prompt. Of course, this can backfire if the rules of the contest are particularly rigid — however, in most cases, judges will appreciate writers who think outside the box.
There are many ways to subvert a prompt. One common method is to switch up the expected genre; for example, if given a dramatic prompt, you might make it comedic instead. You might also interpret the prompt’s phrasing in an unorthodox way, and/or apply it to a subject that nobody else would think of. Two great examples of this from the Reedsy contest are “Leaves” and “Apart,” each of which responds to a quote in such a way that the original speaker never intended, but with utterly brilliant results.
3. Evoke a certain atmosphere
This one can be hard to pull off for writers who’re real plotters and always prioritize story over setting the scene. But bear with me: sometimes it’s best to focus on atmosphere, particularly if setting is a meaningful component of your piece.
You can evoke atmosphere by employing detailed sensory descriptions: what the characters see, hear, smell, touch, everything. Remember to show rather than tell as much as you can, though don’t overwhelm the reader with paragraphs of description — break it up with some dialogue and action.
This also ties into my first piece of advice, in that one of the best ways to create strong atmosphere is to base it off real life. Judges will be much more able to “soak up” the atmosphere of your story if you, too, have experienced it.
If you can, immerse yourself in that environment for a solid hour or two before you start your story, making observations and notes. When you’ve emerged from your sensory cocoon, you’ll be primed to evoke that atmosphere as part of a more polished piece. (If you’re still lost, check out this contest winner, “A Bird in the Hand,” which conjures atmosphere beautifully.)
If you are unable to visit the setting yourself, these tips will help you deliver description that feels real to readers.
4. Try out an unusual POV
Using an unconventional or surprising point of view in your writing can also be a major boon in a contest. Most entries are written in basic first or third person, so using a different POV can really help your piece stand out.
For example, second person POV (in which the narrator addresses their intended audience as “you”) is rare, but very powerful when used well. One of our winning stories that did this was “Local Hero,” in which the narrator speaks directly to her tormented husband. The impact of second person POV here is breathtaking — her sorrow and pain are palpable, and the reader feels almost as though they are responsible for it, since they perceive themselves as the “you.”
You (the writer) might also consider writing in standard first or third person POV, but not revealing who the narrator actually is, or making them unreliable. Finally, you could switch back and forth between different narrators, possible even different types of POV (e.g. between first and third person), which keeps the pacing swift and readers on their toes.
5. Play with temporal structure
Perhaps the most challenging of these suggestions is to experiment with chronology and temporality in your work, disrupting the reader’s conception of how time should work.
A well-established way of doing this is to include flashbacks, which gradually reveal more and more information that coincides with “present-day” events in your story. You can also reverse the timeline — though this is tougher because you can’t just rehash everything backwards. You have to carefully depict information and events in such a way that it reveals something of import; Reedsy contest winner “The Final Day” accomplishes this reveal with great aplomb.
In any case, as you can probably tell, the essential lesson to glean from all of this is: be the most unique version of yourself as an author and write a story only you could write. Ironically, following other people’s advice on the subject won’t get you nearly as far as marching to the beat of your own drum. So be intrepid, go forth, and write!
If you’re feeling inspired to start right now, head on over to our directory of over 300 writing contests you can enter in 2019.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).