Why your story didn’t win that themed entry writing contest

Influenza is a funny thing. I had a little bit of it over the Christmas holidays, just enough to cause me to stay in bed for a day or so. My family members all had it to the ‘shoot me now’ level. And while I was being very slightly ill, I was contacted by a publisher who’d been running a themed writing contest. Their slush reader had got the flu but badly, would I please read the top 30 entries she’d already selected and pick out eight to go to the judge?

Of course I would. There’s very little – writing related – stuff that I won’t do for money! So in one day I read the 30, the next day I shortlisted eight and then asked if I could have the rest, just for my own satisfaction. So in two days I read them all. 146 entries.

Am I a superhero? No. Because although I read them all, I didn’t read all the way through. And the reason I didn’t was simple. It has to do with the way contests work, and although I tell people this all the time, it still seems to come as a surprise.

When you pick out stories for a judge, you have several things on your mind: the quality of the stories, obviously; their relation to the theme, obviously; the judge’s own writing and preferences (not obviously but usually that’s the case); the publication's own house style (which shouldn’t influence you but sometimes does).

But the one thing above all you have in your mind is this: if you send eight stories to a judge, they have to be eight DIFFERENT stories. DIFFERENT means ‘not covering the same territory’ because, to be honest, if you’re reading blind, you’ve got no idea if you pick two or more stories by the same writer.

And there, dear reader, is why you didn’t win. You didn’t win because you were one of the 75% or so entrants who picked the same basic two or three bits of territory for their story. You were given a word, or a sentence or something, about which to write and the first thing that came into your head was so great you just got on and polished it until it gleamed and sent it off.

And so did three-quarters of the other contestants. Same basic idea, similar level of polish. And as slush reader, I’m only going to put one or two stories covering the same territory to the judge.

Practical example: the theme is ‘stone’. Off the top of my head, about a third of people will write about a stone in their pockets, a third will write about a headstone (thinking that is a nice twisty approach – it is, but not if lots of other people do it too) and a reasonable proportion will thing that an equally twisty way to approach it is to write about drugs. The rest of the people will write about anything from dry stone walling to peach pits (called stones in some places) and because I will only put one pocket story, one headstone story and one drug story forward to the judge, the remaining five shortlist places will be divided between what is probably less than 10% of the entrants.

Simple rule. If entering a themed contest write down six or eight ideas. Then throw them away and work on your ninth or tenth – it substantially increases your chances of making the shortlist.

Back to my influenza reading. Of the 146 entries, more than half had the same basic theme and so I didn’t need to read further than the first page. And that’s how I read 146 stories in two days

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