Five Tips for Entering Writing Contests

When it comes to writing, you'll probably be entering a lot of writing contests. Here are a few helpful tips for getting through the slush pile.

Back before I started querying the YA contemporary that got me an agent—way, way before—I queried a new adult for a short while. It got me requests but never really went anywhere, mainly because the word count was about, oh 20,000 words shy of what it was supposed to be. Hey, you live and learn, right?

But I was thinking about that book the other day. In one of the contests I entered it in, I had to fill out a little question section, and then enter my first 250 words. The book is told from dual POV so I entered the question section from one POV and then the first 250 was from a totally separate POV.

I actually did that.

Looking back, I have no idea what I was thinking. That was the epitome of confusing for a reader. Fortunately I’ve learned so much along the way and am now on the flip side of contests, working as a mentor. So here are some tips from both me the newbie, with the dual POV, and the new mentor that came out on the other side.

Edit your work

Contests aren’t for first drafts. There’s rumor of AMAZING first drafts by mystical beings, but if you’re like the rest of us with our convoluted plots, do edits before entering it into any kind of contest. Even ones that have a mentor round. Just because the finalists will get part of their work edited by a mentor doesn’t mean you should submit anything other than what you consider the best.

WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING, YOU'LL PROBABLY BE ENTERING A LOT OF WRITING CONTESTS. HERE ARE A FEW HELPFUL TIPS FOR GETTING THROUGH THE SLUSH PILE.

Mentors only have a certain amount of time to edit your work so those picking finalists can’t choose something that needs a whole bunch of work. During my mentor round of Nightmare on Query Street, both of the women I mentored had near perfect first pages, and queries that only needed partial help.

Be prepared for even more edits

Even if you enter a contest where the mentors only go over the query and first page, be prepared to take those edits and apply them to your book. If the mentor points out where you tell instead of show, go through your whole book to look for other instances like that.

If you enter a bigger contest, like Pitch Wars, where your whole MS will be edited by a mentor, be ready to take on those edits. You only have two months to do them in Pitch Wars, after all. If you’re entering a contest, go into it knowing you’ll be doing some work on your book. The contests I mentioned in this article are all free so these mentors and readers are DONATING time to do this for writers just like you. They want to see you succeed.

WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING, YOU'LL PROBABLY BE ENTERING A LOT OF WRITING CONTESTS. HERE ARE A FEW HELPFUL TIPS FOR GETTING THROUGH THE SLUSH PILE.

Be unique

In huge contests like Pitch Wars, the mentors receive a total of about 1500 entries. There are only 100 mentors. So they have to sift through all of them. Even though you can pick which mentors to send to, they often share with each other if they think a fellow mentor might be better suited for a project. Even smaller contests like Nightmare on Query Street, Pitch Madness, or Pitch Slam see anywhere from 400-800 entries. And they can only pick about 60 finalists. Some contests only choose 20 finalists.

Your entry has to stand out in a contest like that. This is why your query or pitch is so important. These wonderful people powering through the slush pile have seen a hundred YA fantasies, contemporaries, adults, middle grades. You have to find what’s unique about your book and then utilize it.

When I was querying this YA contemporary that got me agented, I found that there had been a book published about a decade ago, one I never read, that had a similar premise to mine. So I asked someone who’d read both that book and my opening pages if they were similar at all. And she said that the ideas SOUNDED similar, but my book and the other one were nothing alike. So I had to pull out what made mine unique and make sure that stood out in the query and in pitches.

WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING, YOU'LL PROBABLY BE ENTERING A LOT OF WRITING CONTESTS. HERE ARE A FEW HELPFUL TIPS FOR GETTING THROUGH THE SLUSH PILE.

Follow the rules

Going hand in hand with the unique one is following rules. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people ignoring rules throughout contests. If the contest is for a 35 word pitch, don’t do 36 words. Contest rules are there for a reason and you can get disqualified if you don’t follow them. Being unique in your entry doesn’t mean doing things outside of the rule box. The slush readers are already set to a limited amount of picks. You make it easier for them to not even consider yours if you show them you can’t follow a few rules they have in place to make things easier.

Don’t compare your book to others in a negative way

There have been a lot of pitches or queries I’ve seen or edited where the book being queried is presented as “better” than a single title or a whole genre. For example, something like “My book is different from every other YA because the heroine doesn’t just care about boys.”

That’s an extreme example, and nothing I’ve seen myself. But it’s that kind of comparison, to a title or genre, that’ll turn a lot of contest judges and slush readers off to reading your work. It’s also been known to bug agents when they see it in queries.

Have fun

This is an extra tip and something so many people forget when it comes to contests. These contests aren’t just about getting in front of agents. They’re also about meeting friends and future critique partners, having fun and supporting other writers. It is upsetting to not get picked for contests, but the experience of entering one is something a lot of writers need. And keep in mind that contests aren’t the final say in your querying journey. I never got my agent with a contest, but what I got out of the few I did enter was priceless.

Do you have more tips or tricks for entering a writing contest? Let us know in the comments below!