Craft & Culture Writing tips: from writers for writers

How to write a prize-winning short story

Writer and tutor Helen Yendall shares her top tips for writers thinking of submitting their work to writing competitions
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When it comes to writing competitions, there are hundreds of contests held every year, often with tempting prizes, but many writers don’t enter. If you’re one such writer – always thinking of submitting your work but never quite getting round to it – we’ve got a real treat for you. One that could give you the insight you need to craft the perfect, prize-winning short story.

Helen Yendall is a writer and tutor and member of the Evesham Festival of Words literary festival, as well as one of the initial readers for the festival’s short story competition. In this article, Yendall shares with us her top tips for writers thinking of submitting their work to writing competitions. We hope this fantastic advice will set you on your way to literary success!

Short story competitions: Helen Yendall’s top tips

Don’t leave it to the last minute to submit your story. Most entries arrive in the final few days of a competition and the judges are under time pressure to read them. Send your story in early and you’re effectively buying more time; more time for your story to be read, considered and, hopefully, placed on the ‘shortlist’ pile.

If the competition has a theme, don’t go with your first idea. It’s likely to be the same as many other people’s and you want your story to stand out.

Make sure what you’re submitting really is a short story. I’ve seen ‘short stories’ that were actually monologues, a short play, character studies, autobiographical pieces and novel extracts. No matter how well it’s written, if the judges don’t consider your entry to be a short story, it won’t win.

In a short story, something has to happen. Even if the ‘something happening’ is simply a change of mind or point of view. The hero must be altered in some way and shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as at the beginning.

Short stories are essentially about character. There’s not room for a huge cast of people. Ask yourself ‘whose story is this?’ and focus on that character.

A good title should lift your story and entice a reader. It’s also the first impression a judge has of your story and your writing, so it’s important.  

A strong start is important: you want to ‘hook’ your reader as quickly as possible. But think ‘intriguing’ rather than ‘shocking’. A shocking first line can be a hard act to follow, as well as seeming gimmicky and contrived.

Read the rules carefully. If your entry is disqualified (say, because you included your name on each page, when your entry was supposed to be anonymous), you’ll never know. And you’ll wonder why that brilliant story you wrote – and it may well have been brilliant – wasn’t even longlisted.

The maximum word count is a guide, not a target. Your story might naturally finish much sooner and that’s fine (don’t pad it out unnecessarily). But we sometimes see entries that are a fraction of the permitted word count. It’s not impossible, of course, for a story of only 300 words or so to win a competition but it would need to be exceptional. Far better to develop your themes and character(s) and write something longer.

Watch for typos and grammatical mistakes. A spelling mistake on the second line of a story (this happens) is off-putting and will make a judge wonder just how much care has gone into crafting and polishing that story.

Our 2019 judge, esteemed short story writer, Vanessa Gebbie, urged entrants to be brave and take risks with their writing. A particular judge may not like it, of course but I think it’s true to say that no judge will choose a bland (or ‘safe’) story as a winner.

When it comes to a competition entry, I believe your ending is actually more important than your beginning. A good ending can enhance and lift an unremarkable story but a poor ending can ruin an otherwise fabulous story.

When I judged last year’s competition, so many entries fizzled out at the end, as though the writer had run out of steam, or word count, or ideas. So many endings were a cop-out, or confusing or just plain dull. There were 5 or 6 stories that were in contention for the longlist but their disappointing endings let them down.

You don’t have to tie everything up – there doesn’t have to be a happy ending. But the ending must be fitting and satisfy the reader. It’s part of your challenge as a writer to work out what that might be.

I’m sometimes asked what kind of story I’m looking for when I judge a competition and the honest answer is I don’t know until I read it. For me, a good story is one that makes me forget I’m reading but that I remember for a long time after I’ve put it aside.  

Good luck!

About the author of this post

Helen Yendall is a writer and tutor. She blogs at www.blogaboutwriting.wordpress.com.  She’s a member of the steering group for Evesham Festival of Words and acts as one of two initial readers for the Festival Short Story Competition, which is open for entries until midnight on 20th March 2020. More details about both the festival and the competition in the hyperlinks above.

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