How to Win a Writing Contest

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
September 22, 2016


If you want to know how to win a writing contest, take it from someone who has judged a lot of writing contests? (Yes, that would be me). Here are four things that will almost automatically get you past the first few rounds of judging. They seem like simple things, but it is amazing how many folks don't do them.

1. Don't enter something that doesn't fit the contest.

Honestly. You just cannot win if it doesn't fit the contest parameters.

  • If it's a picture book contest and you send the first chapter of your novel, you simply cannot win.
  • If it is a contest for children's mysteries and you send a mystery with an all adult cast, you're not going to win.
  • If it is a children's poetry contest and your poem is about the frustrations of retirement or the pain of your divorce, winning is not going to happen. 

Even if your work is brilliant, can you imagine the firestorm of protest if the winner of their contest didn't match the theme of the contest? So, save your time (and the judge's) for contests where your entry fits.

2. Read your entry out loud.

It is almost impossible not to catch rough spots if you read something out loud. It is such a fantastic way to catch the things that simply don't work. Many, many, many of the entries that don't win, but could have, run into the problem of having too many of those rough spots that weren't smoothed away.

In fact, if you're submitting anywhere, anytime, reading the piece aloud is something you just shouldn't skip. If you've written a novel, I know you're probably not going to want to read it out loud, but you still should as you edit. But at the very least, read the first chapter. First impressions are important so make the first chapter read smoothly, clearly, and well. You can also choose to read your work aloud to someone. Why read it to someone? The expression on the face of a listener is another barometer of confusing, rough, ambiguous writing. Your listener may not tell you when something works, but they'll probably show you if you'll  only look.

3. Don't get so freaked out by small stuff that you don't enter the contest.

Any time we have a contest at the Institute of Children's Literature, people start fretting about little things like format. Honestly, the only way format will mess you up in a contest is if it

(1) makes the entry unreadable or
(2) makes the entry incapable of being judged.

In "blind" contests (which our contests at ICL are not) there will be rules about exactly when and where to put contact information so it can be stripped away before the judges see it. If you do that wrong, they'll have to kick out your entry because it cannot be judged.

We're softer on those things at ICL. Our judges just don't pay attention to who you are or your contact info. If you win, we need to contact you––the judge has nothing to do with that. So we just have you format clearly and put in your contact info clearly. Avoid cutesy fonts or printing one sentence on each page. (We actually won't kick you out for that, but it makes reading really choppy. That hurts you.) Don't make every word a different color. Format is mainly about keeping the judges attention on your words, so don't get cute and distracting with the format.

4. The very most important parts of any entry are the title, the opening lines, and the ending.

Title: You want your title to snare the reader. However, don't label and don't give away the story or poem in the title. It's an enticement, not a summary.
The Opening Lines: If you bore the reader or confuse the reader at the beginning, it's hard to overcome that.

The Ending: If the ending leaves the reader flat or confused or looking for a lost page of the manuscript, you're in trouble.

So, don't skip giving the piece a title, but don't turn it into a summary of the story or a statement of the "lesson." Honestly you're better off calling the story "Fred" than "How Janie Learned to Share." At least with "Fred" we aren't turned off before we get started. And give both the beginning and the ending the most polish and consideration. Those are the places where it's hardest to recover from a stumble.

Nancy Coffelt is a children's book author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work  here.


Gina Macak
October 17, 2019

Thanks for sharing your expert gift of book writing etiquette.

Margaret Redfern
September 24, 2016

I have written three books for children, but self-published them . My diploma from the Institute cites me as being an elite author of children's stories. Are there any suggestions as to how I can make them available for full publication? Thank you. Margaret Redfern

Kim Arkesteyn-Vogler
September 24, 2016

Thanks, Jan! As always, I have learned something and come away with ways to improve my stories.

Ricki Ristuccia
September 23, 2016

Thank you. I don't think I can ever get too much information toward improving my writing. Your advice is, as always, very helpful.

Tiffany Dickinson
September 23, 2016

Thank you for sharing this. For us newbies (me) every (even obvious) piece of information helps!

Pat Decker Nipper
September 22, 2016

This is all good advice. I have only judged one contest, but I know exactly what you are saying. Thanks!

Toni Dietkus
September 22, 2016

Thanks for showering us with common sense--going both ways!

Add Comment

Sign up for our weekly tips & market leads. 

If you write for children, sign up for our ICL newsletter.

Writing for adults? Sign up for the IFW newsletter.