Friday, July 16, 2010

How to Win a Short Story Competition


These tips are not cast in stone. They are just guidelines to help you create a more polished story. You take and leave what you deem is necessary. In the end, you're the author.

• Choose a good title. A bad title will reflect on the story no matter how good your writing is.
• Choose good names for your characters.
• Write in the active tense of verbs instead of the passive. The active tense moves the story faster. The passive tense always has some part of the verb to be in there somewhere.
• Write about what you know, but also stretch your mind and write about what you don’t know. This will make you do research. Publishers like to know the facts are accurate.
• Keep the story and action in one place.
• Keep to one time slot.
• Keep to one story, don’t go off on a tangent because you are fascinated with your own characters and plot line. Writers often have two or three stories in one.
• Always write with the reader in mind.
• Let the character and action carry the story.
• Make sure the tone of the story is consistent
• Make sure there is conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist.
• Make sure the supporting characters are needed, if not kill them off.
• Make sure the story has a start a middle and an end; otherwise the story is not a story but a treatise.
• Make sure the events in the story have changed the protagonist by the end.
• Edit until you are sick of the thing. Allow lots of time to write and edit. Walk away from your story for a few weeks. When you come back the awkward bits will stand out.
• Read the story out loud, the mistakes will hit your ears. Take out any word or sentence that does not move the story along.
• Be honest and sincere and always write from the heart.
• The best stories are the simple ones, and above all, enjoy your writing. This will show in the finished story and there is nothing like a positive confident attitude to make a story work well.

• Try not to use more than five characters: a protagonist, an antagonist and three supporting others. Remember: the fewer characters the tighter the story.
• Never give the best lines to any character other than the protagonist.
• Never give the highest value to any character other than the protagonist.
• Don’t ramble or titivate.
• Don’t describe the actions; instead let your character go through the actions. Your readers will want to experience the events for themselves, they will want to be there to laugh or cry along with the characters.
• As the author, don’t let your ego get in the way of the story. You don’t have to use big words to show how clever you are, readers know you are clever because you are writing the story.
• Don't use your travel experiences in a way that comes across as look at me, I was there. That could be seen as arrogant bragging.
• Don’t let your presence get in the way of the story. The characters are the only ones who should be there. In other words don’t manipulate, describe or explain.
• Don’t use words ending in ly, these are adverbs and are not useful in a story; words such as these slow the action: He sat down clumsily; she laughed happily. Let your words show that he sat down in such a way that the reader sees the man as clumsy. And don't forget to go easy on the use of adjectives as well.
• Don’t look back at older writing as an example, no matter how famous the author was. What was allowed back then is not acceptable today.
• Don’t start sentences with the words IT, THERE WAS, AND THERE IS: sentences starting this way should be re-written. Sentences starting this way leave the reader wondering what IT is. Also, don't use overused words such as discerning, or overused phrases: You know what I mean.
• Don’t use colloquialisms, slang UNLESS the character uses slang, but the best thing is to stay away from this altogether. Readers are not always familiar with street slang. And you should not use swear words; this is not cool and shows a publisher you are inexperienced as a writer. Again, unless this is to show who your character is.
• Don’t use porn, don’t use racial slurs.
• Don’t copy other writers: Stephen King or other books: Harry Potter These books can only be written by the authors who wrote them. Find your own way to write, a way that only you can do.
• Don’t use big words or complicated sentences. Don’t forget who you are writing for many readers are not qualified to read.
• Don’t use similes or metaphors to make your point. The sentences should stand on their own without being compared to something that is not useful to the action.
• If your story is rejected or an editor pulls it to pieces don’t email the organizers of the competition and go off on them and don't get mad at your editor if the editor seems abrupt and overly critical. Instead, you should use the experience to learn to write better for the next competition. Failure is the best teacher. You will learn very little from success; you have nowhere to go from there. This goes for submitting to book publishers as well.
• Never argue back at people whose job it is to help; this is not positive and leads to nowhere. Instead, ask questions: Why does that part not work? Why can't I describe the scenery at that point? Etc.

I hope you find these tips helpful when you write your next story. Keep on writing!


  1. Excellent tips, Claudia. I emphasize many during my workshops because we can never hear them enough, even if we are experienced writers. I might disagree with your tip not to use similes or metaphors. Just one original simile or metaphor can add imagery, a writer's unique voice and style to one's writing. Like many of your other tips, though, the overuse of them will only detract from one's writing.

  2. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for your insightful comment. Yes, similes and metaphors are beautiful and when used correctly they can add a lot to the story, I agree. Thank you!

  3. Great video on procrastination! It says it all. l sure have that problem but the real trouble that l don't feel like solving it and that's depressing!

  4. Hi Again

    You may notice I have a collection of RULES on my blog. I hope you'll be flattered and not ticked if you see these on my blog (I promise to give you credit)

    By the way...can you tell I loved this piece...obviosly enough to steal (insert diabolical laugh here) -- Regards, Mac