The winners of our Holiday Story contest were announced last week. As usual, many people asked why their entry didn't win. It would be impossible for us to give feedback on every story sent in––after all, getting your entry critiqued is part of the prize! We know listening to those critiques in the follow up online lesson is educational and can be beneficial to writers, but we did ask our judge Nancy Coffelt what common mistakes she saw while reading the entries.
So today we give you The Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make When Submitting Their Work (or What Not to do When You Enter Our Next Contest).
Here is what Nancy told us:
1. The entry didn't follow submission guidelines.
Some submissions were over word count––I allowed for a few words over the 500 word cap for the Holiday Story Contest, but some were much longer. Some weren't about a holiday at all. One of the most common reasons a publisher rejects a manuscript is that it didn't follow their specified guidelines. Same with a contest. Be sure your manuscript matches the contest topic and follows all word count requirements as well any other guidelines.
2. No conflict.
Conflicts don't have to be Indiana Jones-type peril––even a gentle conflict works well for young readers. Some entries followed the activities of the holiday, but there was no problem to be solved. That made it difficult to relate to the main character––or be invested in the outcome of the story.
3. An adult main character.
Mom or Grandma were the main characters in many stories even when there was a child present in those stories. Young readers don't relate to adults in the adult world other than getting their needs met. Young readers relate to young main characters. The most successful stories stuck to the "kid world" and that experience.
4. No main character.
Though poems can skirt the traditional main character requirement, in the vast majority of the cases, prose needs a main character. Multiple points of view can smoosh the characters into a kind of "character blob." That makes it harder to be invested in the story and its plot.
5. A "lesson-y" ending or an ending that isn't a true resolution to the conflict.
Adult characters solved (not just assisted) the problems in some of the entries. That led to the overt lesson in many cases. While we may hope our stories help the reader learn something, we can't hit them over the head with it. (See #6)
I saw entries with endings that have been used to the point that they've become cliches: "They all smiled" and "they all laughed" or "it was all a dream." Circling back to the initial problem (and dealing with or resolving it) was the result of the most successful endings of the contest entries.
6. "Telling" when they could be "showing."
A Google search of "show, don't tell" will bring up a lot of terrific posts on this important writing technique. Showing inner thoughts, using dialogue and action was the key to making the most successful entries sparkle.
I would overlook a few errors in an entry, but in some, the basics of grammar and punctuation weren't as strong as they needed to be for a contest or for a publisher submission. The primary reason ICL runs these contests is to help writers learn to submit properly. There are wonderful grammar books available and many, many sites that provide grammar help to get that submission as squeaky clean as possible. Don't forget to get a fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript before submitting. Ask a friend or a critique partner to listen to you read aloud, and then proofread so you can fix mistakes before you hit the submit button.
Before you submit your next contest entry, ask yourself if your manuscript contains any of these mistakes. If so, take the time to correct them and tighten up your manuscript. That will put you one step closer to having a winning entry ... in the contest or with a publisher.
To see if your work is a good fit for our latest contest, click here.