How to Win Writing Competitions, by Dianne (Di) Bates

As a judge and sometimes winner of writing competitions for adults writing for children, I’m as well-equipped as most to comment on how to catch a judge’s eye. First to consider are the competition rules: it is imperative to follow them to the letter. Stick to the topic and the word length, and ensure your entry is despatched at least a week earlier than the closing date. My observation as a judge is that the majority of entries arrive on the last two days, leaving no allowance for postal problems. Meeting deadlines is crucial in the publishing industry and writers need to learn not to leave manuscript submission to the last moment.

Occasionally entrants do not include a stamped self-addressed envelope for receipt of results. Sometimes entry fee cheques are wrongly addressed, and sometimes missing. Basic procedures can and do go wrong when a little care on the writer’s part will address them.

If a title page is required, follow exactly what is required. Include your full contact details – your postal address, phone number and email address. Also remember to include the word count; it’s also a good idea to write the name of the competition under it.

Surprisingly, many writers do not know how to present their manuscript professionally. They don’t indent paragraphs and leave spaces between paragraphs when space isn’t called for. They often don’t know to take a new paragraph for each new speaker. Making sure that your spelling, punctuation and grammar are impeccable is crucial if you don’t wish to get the competition judge offside. Your writing needs to be edited ruthlessly so that every word is the right word in the right place. Many competition entrants lack basic editing skills, leaving their work over-written and laden with cliches.

What a judge wants to see are good opening lines, strong characters who read like real people, dialogue that rings true. They want well-crafted, original stories told from the viewpoint of a narrator whose voice is so distinctive and unique that captures the reader’s imagination and causes the story to linger in the memory. Unfortunately not many stories stand out in any way.

In judging a story’s worth, a judge will ask herself the following questions:

Is the story’s subject matter of interest to targeted readership?
Does the story have an appealing and appropriate title?
Does the opening sentence entice the reader?
Is the story mood and subject matter apparent from the beginning?                                                                      
Are the characters suitably named?                                    
Is there a good sense of the main character?
Is the story well paced?
Is there a clear sense of story direction?
Does each section advance the storyline?
Is the ending satisfactory?

Here are the main reasons stories don’t succeed:

First is lack of writing ability. The basic skills of solid sentence construction, story structure and consistent tense are missing in many stories. You don’t need a degree in English to write well, but you do need an understanding of the basics. If you feel you are weak in this area, take time to learn. If your prose is improved, you will have a greater chance of success.

Many stories lack originality. Often storylines are tired and/or overworked. The same idea can be used again and again, but coming up with a new way of presenting it is the key to exciting a reader’s interest. Likewise, don’t settle for tired, overused phrases: “The burly policeman,” “the bored housewife.” Be fresh, innovative, and original in your phraseology. (Don’t get too outrageous, however; that’s just as bad.)

The major weakness in stories I’ve read as a judge is that writers tell instead of show. Telling a story results in flat, lifeless prose which bores readers and can lead to a didactic writing style. Don’t say the monster was scary; instead, describe how “drool dripped over its scaly lips”. Draw readers in by showing events as they unfold and characters as they develop.

Another problem that lets down many stories that otherwise have good potential is poor characterisation: children talk like adults; modern teenagers speak as if they’ve stepped out of the 20’s. Men sound like women (when they aren’t supposed to). Actions and words contradict descriptions — for example, writing “He was a mild-mannered man” followed by a passage in which the character throws a tantrum and whacks a colleague. You might protest and say that the point of the story is that he acted out of character, and there is a place for that. I’m not talking about deliberate writing; I’m talking about the muddled kind, where the author obviously hasn’t planned the character properly. Characters are best shown through what they say, how they act in a crisis, how they interact with others and by their actions. Consistency is paramount.

Often in poorer stories there is overuse of adverbs and adjectives. These have a place in writing, but when overused, they weaken prose. Look at the writing of Australian authors such as Rodney Hall and Tim Winton: they are masters of language. Children’s writers such as Margaret Wild and Ursula Dubosarsky show how to write vividly without resorting to clichéd language laden with adverbs and adjectives. Avoid, too, long-winded descriptive passages. In a short story, the reader almost never needs to know how green the hills are, or how blue the sky, or how restless the sea, unless the location is essential to the plot. You’d be surprised at how often exact details don’t matter if you’ve given the “essence” of the place.

No matter how subtle or obscure a story may be, it should have a beginning, middle and end. It should also have a theme, which doesn’t have to be overtly stated, but may run through the prose in an unspoken motif. Essays, anecdotes, lectures or memoirs are not short stories. Likewise, writing that is nothing more than a soapbox for personal beliefs is not a story. Too often, when I have judged stories written by adults for young readers, the author finds it necessary to deliver a ‘lesson’. Children read stories for entertainment, not for learning.

Often in stories one finds general inconsistencies. By this I mean lifestyle values, clothing styles, social standards, manners of speech and so on that were not in harmony with the setting. For instance, in Western culture today, children almost never call their grandparents “Grandmother” and “Grandfather.” Terms like Granddad, Poppa, Nanna, Nona and Gran are far more likely to be used. And don’t discount the large number of kids who come from split families and have a confusing number of grandparents: They’re likely to use given names. Many good stories were spoiled by a disparity between the stated generation and the generation revealed by the prose.

When judging picture book stories I have been overwhelmed by the number of writers who give no consideration whatsoever to the role of the illustrator. Too often they will describe a setting or a character when the illustration can show these.

At one end of the scale, a good short story can offer a few minutes of relaxation and escape. At the other, it can make a reader laugh, think or cry. It can entertain, illuminate, move or stir someone, change the reader’s perception of an event or person or feeling — in short, enhance our understanding of the world. Competition judges doubtless agreed that the story which is the best written of all entries with an original topic and language filled with fresh and imaginative imagery and with a distinctive and arresting narrative voice should be the winner. This is exactly what any judge is looking for!

Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of over 100 books for young people some of which have won national and state literary awards. Her latest book is the YA novel, Crossing the Line (Ford Street) which was short-listed last year for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Di shares her website with her prize-winning author husband, Bill Condon.


The Australian Literature Review

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2 Responses to How to Win Writing Competitions, by Dianne (Di) Bates

  1. Michael says:

    Great article, but I have to ask: are the names of characters really seen as that important?

  2. auslit says:

    Hi Michael,
    Character names are not necessarily all that important.
    Different writers (and competition judges) will place different emphasis on all sorts of things. A lot of it comes down to how well something works in a specific piece of writing. In many pieces of writing, the names are just names and not of any major significance.

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