Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

How to Score Well in a Writing Contest

I’ve judged a number of writing contests and always find those who have wasted their time. (And possibly entry fee.)


  • Wrong genre – don’t submit fantasy if they want mystery.
  • Wrong category – don’t submit short story when they want nonfiction.
  • Wrong audience age – don’t submit an article for preschoolers when the target age is 8 to 10-year-olds.


  • Word count – if rules says under 800 words, don’t send 801. Tighten your manuscript by at least two words to be 799 or under. Often, when you tighten word count you end up with cleaner, clearer writing.
  • Format – usually manuscripts are double-spaced. I’ve seen triple spaced, quadruple spaced, and even more blank lines. Don’t do this as it could cause an automatic rejection. And turn off spacing before and after paragraphs. Probably a judge will ignore this if it’s only 6 pt. But if they need a reason to decide between two close manuscripts, they’ll probably choose the one formatted correctly.
  • Font – sometimes submission rules specify what kind and size of font. If this isn’t specified, use a standard font, size 12.
  • File Naming Conventions – often what you name your document has a required format. It might be Last name dot story title. Or first and last name and the words contest entry. Whatever is requested, follow exactly.


  • Paragraphs should be indented – whether you use a tab or use the automatic indent on word, this is usually ½ inch.
  • Paragraphing – it’s shocking how many manuscripts come with no paragraph breaks. Who wants to read a solid wall of text? When a new character talks start a new paragraph. Articles should also be broken into paragraphs.
  • Basic Punctuation – if you don’t understand the basics, get a book and learn them. My favorite is Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them by Harry Shaw. Or take online tests. Googling “punctuation tests,” I found this one:  At least run your text through a grammar checker such as


  • Fresh and original topic – avoid the obvious. For example, if it’s a holiday story, pick an unusual holiday. First day of school stories are common—would a last day of school story be more interesting? I can’t tell you how many new kid at a new school stories I’ve seen as a writing instructor. What would be different?
  • New twist to a common topic – approach it in a unique way. I’ve read lots of stories about kids wanting pets. Two stand out because they were different: Tammi Sauer’s Me Want Pet and Kirsten Pendreigh’s Luna’s Green Pet.
  • Make the reader feel – evoke emotions whether it’s a skin-crawling creepiness, a delight in some weird fact, or humor that causes a laugh out loud moment.
  • Use the tools of good writing – strong active verbs, sensory details, showing, voice, etc. Will a metaphor or simile give a better picture? Use one.
  • Revise to make it the best you can – even if it means starting your article over completely. Get feedback from other writers. Set it aside, then come back to it so you can see it afresh. Read your piece aloud and fix anything that doesn’t flow, is awkward, or confusing.

Before you submit, do a final run through of your manuscript looking for typos. An error free submission won’t guarantee a win, but will definitely give the judges less to mark down.

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2 thoughts on “How to Score Well in a Writing Contest

  1. As always, chuck full of solid advice and good links. Your blog is a good resource for writers.
    I tried the grammar quiz (punctuation) because I know I overuse commas. The quiz didn’t seem to think I do. 🙂
    As to contests, I so rarely enter. The few times I have, I wasn’t a winner. I want to add that it’s a good idea not to enter the ones that charge fees. These are money-making operations.

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