Short Story Contests: Why They Matter and 4 Tips to Enter

Sarah Rexford
April 29, 2023 | 6 mins

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If you want to become a successful author you may be considering entering short story contests. However, you may be nervous to enter or not sure if now is the best time. Short story contests are a phenomenal way to get feedback on your writing.

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What Are Short Story Contest?

Short story contests are ways for writers, both published and not yet published, to submit their writing to writing professionals. Once you submit your work, you will wait for the judges to look through all submissions and make their judgements. 

If you place, you can use your win as a resume builder or, if you win a well-known contest, include it in your author bio. If you do not place, you still receive many benefits:

  • More practice writing
  • The affirmation that you tried
  • Possible feedback from judges 

With this in mind, let’s dive a little deeper into why you may want to make this year the one you decide to enter short story contests.

Why Enter A Contest?

Even if you do not win first place or land as a finalist, receiving feedback from experts in the writing world is a great writing strategy due to its high value. Professionals in the publishing industry love looking through new writers' work and assessing both the strengths and weaknesses. 

Many writing contests are free or can be entered for a small fee. Think of short story contests as a short circuit to feedback: Rather than find a writing conference, pay for travel and accommodations, pay the conference fee, and hope you’ll get a one-on-one with an editor, you can skip all of it. 

Instead, enter a contest, pay the entrance fee (if applicable) and wait to hear back. Of course, not every writing contest includes constructive criticism, but many do. So, how do you get the most out of entering short story contests? It all comes down to how you prepare. 

How To Prepare For Short Story Contests

Before you click submit on your web browser and sit back, there are four key steps you can take to help give yourself the best chance possible of winning. While winning is not always the most important result of entering short story contests, placing can be a great confidence booster.

I want you to have the best chance possible of showing your creative writing to the judges! Follow the four steps below to up your chances at making finalist, semi-finalist, or possibly even winning first prize.

#1 – Write An Original Short Story

Short story contests are by definition contests centered around short stories. Writing an entire manuscript can feel extremely daunting:

  • You have to meet your word count
  • Craft compelling character arcs
  • Create subplots 

Writing a short story is arguably more difficult. Rather than having 70,000 words or so to show your characters' growth, you now have to do so in a greatly restricted word count. If this feels daunting, you’re not alone.

Just as when you begin crafting your novel, with short stories you must decide where to start. Deciding where to start your story is vital to your overall success. Because you do not have much time to show your character arc or reveal the entirety of your plot, try following these two tips:

  • Begin your story as close to the ending as possible 
  • Wrap up your story as quickly as possible

If this still feels overwhelming, read on to point two. 

#2 – Pull Content From Your Work-In-Progress

Entering short story contests is a great way to obtain feedback on your work in progress. Oftentimes I do not have a short story to enter and what I really want feedback on is the novel I'm submitting to agents or publishers. How can you make the most of this issue? Convert your novel into a short story. 

If you can condense your full length novel into a half a page of back cover copy, you can turn your novel into a short story. Speaking from experience, it is difficult, but it does work. I’ve made finalist in several contests over the years with the same short story, drawn from my full length novel.

#3 – Edit, Edit, Edit

These tips wouldn't be tips without me reminding you to edit, edit, edit your work. Especially in short story contests, judges will pay attention to your typos as much as they do your plot. You only have a few hundred or few thousand words to prove you are a stand-out writer. 

I found that it's helpful to edit my work on my computer until I think it's perfect. Then, I print out my short story and edit it again in hard copy. This often draws my attention to typos I would have missed otherwise. Finally, I will often ask someone to proof my writing for typos as a final check before submitting.

#4 – Follow Guidelines Exactly  

Some of the easiest mistakes come by neglecting to follow simple directions. There’s a lot of stress that comes with submitting to short story contests:

  • Did you submit your best piece of writing?
  • Did you format everything exactly?
  • Did you turn off Track Changes?
  • Did you remember to include that last change?

With so much on your mind, it’s easy to miss simple directions such as how to title your document or whether to submit a Word document or PDF. 

Triple check your work before submitting. There is not much worse than paying to enter a contest, editing your short story over and over, then pressing submit only to realize you didn’t title your project accordingly and will be disqualified. 

Start Now: Step Out Before You Feel Ready

Trying to break into the writing industry can feel overwhelming at best and crippling at worst. Many creative struggle with Imposter Syndrome, or the fear that they will one day be found out. Entering short story contests can be a trigger for the following questions:

  • Is your story good enough to enter?
  • Have you grown enough in mastering the writing skills?
  • Will you be rejected?
  • Should you even try?

These are some of the questions we ask as we struggle to decide between pushing forward or staying where we are. Here's a tip of advice:  we will likely never feel completely ready.

The creative process is extremely subjective and what one judge may deem as a compelling story another may write off as cliché. Don’t let the subjectivity of the writing process keep you from moving forward. 

The insight you can gain for the judges of short story contests is so helpful, and learning how to deal with both rejection and success is an extremely important lesson. Before talking yourself out of entering a contest, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I proud of the effort I put into my story?
  • Are my characters compelling?
  • Does my plot engage readers?
  • Have I taken care of typos?

If you're confident in the effort you put into your short story, now is likely a great time to enter that next contest. Even if you don't place, you gain the experience of trying and you may even receive invaluable feedback.

It's up to you to take charge of your writing career. Take that first step today and reap the benefits of trying! 

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