Writing Contests: Understand What Editors Want
Increase Your Chances of Publication
Writers who regularly get published and win writing contests are aware of what editors want and expect in a good story. They use this information and win often. Their stories come across as fresh, with strong characterization and a unique voice, and their writing surprises in some simple way that invites editors to read on.
Lee Kvern, who won our Hazel Hilles Memorial Short Fiction Award for her story "In Search of Lucinda," submitted the same story for the Howard O'Hagan Short Fiction Award and won that contest as well. For a single story, she won $500 in our contest and $700 in the other.
Lee is also a novelist, and she kickstarted her novel-writing career with short story prizes. I know many other writers like her who consistently publish their stories and win contests.
Yet more than ninety percent of stories are rejected or eliminated before the editor has finished the first page. Fiona McCrae, director and publisher of Graywolf Press recently wrote:
People often ask me how much I read of a manuscript before deciding whether or not to publish. The answer is that it variesthe more I like something, the more I read of it. However, it is certainly true that one can tell a lot from a first page.
My agent sent this article to her list of authors, and she added a personal note: "Fiona is being discreet: editors rarely get beyond the first page."
Most authors who submit poorly written manuscripts make mistakes that could have been corrected with ease. Maybe they rushed the manuscript, maybe they're too close to it to see the problems, or maybe they're not yet aware of what editors expect. Whatever the reason, anyone can become aware of potential issues by investing in inexpensive feedback.
Submitting work that will be rejected immediately just doesn't make sense and can cost hundreds of dollars as contest fees accumulate.
Many hopeful writers have no chance of winning and don't even know it. You don't have to be one of them.
I've read hundreds of submissions and contest entries. I often know in the first couple of paragraphs if the writing has what it takes. For starters, I look for a strong voice. Does this story sound original, as if this writer and no other could write it? Is the voice interesting and engaging? If it's not, editors won't keep reading for long.
Lorian Hemingway, founder of the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, wrote that editors and jurors "look for stories that provide meaningful connections with readers through wise, graceful, unforgettable prose."
How close are you to achieving this necessary connection to readers? If you're close, don't allow easily corrected mistakes to disqualify you.
There is nothing that will raise an editor's heart rate faster than a great opening. Successful writers know how to hook readers immediately. Their voices are sure. They know how to divulge information so that it raises a story question. They win prestigious writing contests and get published because they know how to create and increase tension and interest, which virtually guarantees that editors will keep reading.
If you're unsure of the effect or readiness of your writing, my Flash Assessment below has been useful to numerous writers.
If your opening doesn't generate excitement in the first paragraph, I offer personal suggestions for how you might change that. I discuss how to create a compelling hook, and how to ensure a distinctive voice. I point to strengths and to weaknesses you can correct.
Does your opening immediately set up a strong story question? If not, I will suggest a few ways to generate deas and will show you how to encapsulate the essence
of your story into a single, early paragraph.
Because a page or two of writing provides sample enough, I can keep the price of this service ow and still provide you with fast, important information you need. If you submit your
manuscript now, I will return it within 24 hours.
How to Submit
Clicking the Paypal button provides two options:
I make your assessment a priority I match your payment to your text and return the assessment within 24 hours.