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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. Nothing will raise an editor's heart rate faster than a great opening.

Successful writers know how to hook readers immediately. Their stories surprise readers. Their voices are sure and unique. They know how to raise a story question and divulge information gradually.

They win prestigious writing contests and get published because they dramatize complex ideas and know how to create and increase tension. Tension, in an otherwise strong story, virtually guarantees that editors will keep reading.

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, but 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, in my experience, more than 90% of stories are rejected or eliminated before an 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 varies—the 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.

Bad opening pages are similar, with numerous problems that could be easily fixed. Too many adjectives, clunky sentences, and cliches combine to create insurmountable dullness. Great opening pages, however, are all unlike, and my favorite ones nearly always contain a surprise. The surprise often does not come from language that is forced and straining to impress, but can spring from quite simple phrasing, which nonetheless signals something quite dramatic. Think of Orwell's clocks striking thirteen at the beginning of 1984, for example.

My agent, Denise Bukowski, 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."

So how do you ensure that your story receives a thorough reading? With an above-average manuscript, polished and ready in every way!

12 Criteria for a Great Story That Will Win Writing Contests

  1. The writing voice is confident, fresh and original.
  2. The opening has a strong hook that catches and holds interest.
  3. The story immediately evokes reader curiosity.
  4. Conflict is readily apparent and meaningful.
  5. Ideas are complex, captivating, and fully developed.
  6. The writing contains an abundance of concrete, sensory details and little, if any, summary.
  7. Characters are dynamic, their markers succinct and unforgettable.
  8. Diction is tight, fluid and elegant in its simplicity.
  9. Dialogue feels natural and authentic.
  10. The theme, implied or overt, resonates long after the initial reading.
  11. The climax and resolution feel well earned and satisfying.
  12. Overall, the story feels powerful, well crafted, polished, entertaining, and memorable.

Lorian Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and 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."

I've read hundreds of submissions and contest entries. I know in the first couple of paragraphs if a piece of writing has what it takes, and my Flash Assessment for writing contests or publication provides a thorough analysis of any opening. If the writing does not meet the criteria above, I explain why and offer suggestions for improvement.

Investing in qualified feedback saves you money. As submission fees rise, premature submissions cost writers hundreds of dollars in accumulated contest fees. That money is better spent on analysis and editing. With perseverence, a single graceful, well crafted story will find a publisher. Unfinished stories will be rejected every time.

Investing in qualified feedback saves you time. Even for the writer who understands craft, it can be difficult to judge whether techniques have been executed successfully. You may know that something sounds off, but may have difficulty pinpointing the problem. I have 20 years experience pinpointing problems.

Investing in qualified feedback brings you closer to your long term goals. Good feedback not only points to issues, it teaches solutions. Personalized, one-on-one advice prepares you to spot problems faster and arms you with techniques to resolve those problems, in every story you write.

If you're unsure of the effect or readiness of your writing, my Flash Assessment below will remove doubt, teach, and provide solutions. Later, when you submit a polished, arresting story to writing contests, you can feel certain your manuscript will receive the attention it deserves.

This was better value than I ever expected! Thank you, especially for showing me how to strengthen my opening and write dialogue correctly. I've been rejected so many times and couldn't understand why. I plan to revise all of my stories and try again. ~ E. Sorenson, Mesa AZ

You have taught me how to see as both editors and readers would. Also, you have given me the confidence to proceed with my novel. I have more written and will now rewrite using the perspectives you have given me. ~ Jonathan Buchner, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Thank you for your insightful, thought-provoking comments about the first 600 words of my short story. Many people talk about showing the reader what a character is feeling instead of telling the reader, but no one else has come up with the image of filming a scene to elicit that response. In your explanation, you didn't tell me; you showed me as well. ~ Howard Schwartz, NYC

Thank you for your feedback. Your words are the most help I have received since I started writing in 2008. They were honest yet sincere. I felt the encouragement you included in every sentence. I have struggled to receive credible critiques, something I can put to use. I saw immediately how your advice will make me a better writer and my book more attractive to readers. ~ Tammy Stafford, Chatsworth, GA

I found this very helpful, as it's the first time someone has critically looked over my creative writing since my school days. It is hard to reread something you have written from an outside perspective, so to actually have one is invaluable.

I'm glad I emailed you when I did, as I would've submitted my story prematurely, and overlooked important factors affecting my chances of publication. ~ Shaun Wilson, UK

Thank you for helping me to see my writing, including the strengths and the areas that need improvement. Your services were prompt, professional, detailed and helpful. And you articulated what needs to be done in a way that I can take action on. Many thanks. ~ Laura Rietfeld, Montreal, Quebec

Thank you so much for your review of my work, it was immensely helpful! It was very thorough and much more than I was expecting. As an amateur writer, I am always looking to improve my writing, and your insight and suggestions have given me a great sense of direction. I'm excited to take what I've learned from you and apply it not only to this story, but to all my writing. ~ Audrey Seningen, Newark, Delaware

Because a page or two of writing provides sample enough, I can keep the price of this service low and still provide the important information you need, FAST.

If you submit your manuscript now, I will return it within 24 hours of receipt.

How to Submit

  • The total cost for an assessment is only $49.
  • Make payment by clicking on the Paypal button. Then submit the first two pages of your story (max 600 words) using the form below.

Clicking the Paypal button provides two options:

  1. pay by Paypal if you have a paypal account
  2. pay by credit card through the Paypal secure system (this allows you to keep your credit card information private — I never see it.)

I make your assessment a priority — I match your payment to your text and return the assessment within 24 hours.

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