Improving Your Chances in Any Contest

Written by B. Lynn Goodwin

B.Lynn GoodwinjpgThere is no one-size-fits-all formula to make you a winner in every contest. No two judges look for exactly the same thing and committees of judges often disagree. But here’s the good news: The hints below will strengthen your chances of being noticed, reread, and ranked high.

Judges want stories that make an impact on them. If when I’m a judge, I’m still thinking about an idea from a story the next day, I look back to make sure I gave it a high ranking.

Judges want to empathize. Can your protagonist be a criminal? Yes, as long as we understand his motivations. Can your protagonist be evil, ugly, dishonest, mean or flagrantly creepy? Sure, if you let us know why.

Can a character be too good? Absolutely. Readers like flawed people. We identify with them. We want to see how they handle themselves. Let your characters be messy and troubled. Let them provoke my anger. Help me care that they change and care how they change.

Let your character show us his or her epiphanies. Don’t tell me. Let me into the character’s head so I can experience the discovery as s/he does.

The best stories are both unique and universal. The themes your characters explore should be ones that readers can identify with, and yes, judges are readers.

Mechanics matter. Violate standard usage when you have a reason to. Maybe your character is uneducated and “don’t speak with good grammar.” Put it in the dialogue, not the narration. If you aren’t sure about usage, ask Google, Bing, or the search engine or writing coach of your choice.

Professionalism matters. Follow the directions. If your submission won’t upload or you can’t use a requested font, contact the contest supervisor, explain the issue as concisely as possible, and ask for advice.

Voice matters. Concentrate on telling a strong, unique story that will make readers laugh, cry, say “ah-ha,” say “ahhh!” and leave your readers wanting more. If you can do all that, you’ll have voice, and if you’ve found the right contest, you have a winner. For a few more tips visit, and scroll to the bottom. I used my contest judges’ comments to readers to write “What Works and What Doesn’t.”

Writer Advice,, is now running it’s 10th Flash Prose Contest. Our guidelines are on the home page, we give some specific feedback on each submission, and finalists hear from all the judges, who are former contest winners. That makes it well worth the $15 submission fee, especially when you consider that first prize is $200. Take a look at our submission information, and contact me if you have questions at

Picture 1B. Lynn Goodwin is the author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers. Her YA, Talent, will be published by Eternal Press in 2015. She has numerous articles in anthologies and guest blog posts. She’s currently at work on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62 to a man she met on … gulp … Craigslist. She also runs Writer Advice’s Manuscript Consultation Service.

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