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Many people enter writing contests for the opportunity to win a generous cash prize or to receive exposure through a published book of winning entries. What many people don't realize, however, is the sheer volume of entries received in some of the more competitive writing contests. Judges may have to wade through thousands of entries in search of the handful that have winning potential. The key for entrants in writing contests is to understand the judging process and make sure their entries are not headed for an early dismissal.
One criteria used by judges in writing contests is adherence to the rules and mechanics. Especially during the early rounds, judges look for reasons to eliminate entries based on obvious violations of the ground rules. Entrants should include all of the requested contact information, for example. If the entries are to be judged blindly, without identification of the writer, then the entrant must follow the rules for providing a second copy complete with contact information, or whatever the proper format happens to be.
Other reasons for an entrant's early exit in writing contests are mechanics and word limit violations. Misspellings and obvious grammatical errors are often enough to eliminate an entry, even if the content itself is compelling. Word or line limits in writing contests should be respected, although some overage may not be penalized if the content is considered a potential winner. Entrants should assume that the judges understand the parameters of the contest genre, so they shouldn't submit novellas in short story contests or epic poems in general poetry contests. Judges are indeed human, and scoring lengthy entries at the end of a long day may not bode well for the entrant.
Once the field of entries has been narrowed down, judges in writing contests often re-read promising entries. What they are looking for is writing that stands out from the rest of the field. This is very subjective, but experienced judges develop a feel for quality writing.
During this round of judging, adherence to a theme or subject matter is critical. Many writing contests are sponsored by companies or organizations interested in promotion of their particular causes or worldview. Judges tend to rate entries that match this tone higher than others.
For the final judgement round of most writing contests, the judges' criteria often become more nuanced. Almost all of the remaining entries may be of equal quality, but only a few may be chosen as winners. Some writing contests allow judges to confer over the final selections, while others prefer to keep the judges separated throughout the judging process. They may provide their own scores to the sponsors, who in turn award prizes to the highest rated entries. In some cases, a committee is formed to deliberate over the merits of the finalists. A mutual decision is usually reached to determine the order of the winning entries.
In general, judges in writing contests have individual preferences and biases, but quality and originality usually win out. Before entering writing contests, especially those with substantial entry fees, it's always a good idea to poll friends, family and instructors about your proposed entries. Submit only your strongest material and re-check your entry for any mechanical or formatting errors. Most judges want to evaluate entries on their literary merit, not eliminate them on technical grounds.
The best contests should be judged blind and they say that they are. But I've heard contestants say that they started to win more easily once they could include previous wins on their cover letter.
It could be that they had just become better writers. But I think when going through the winnowing process that it could be tempting to look at previous publishing credits. Particularly with something like poetry, which might need more time to take in, if someone has already been published you'd be more likely to look at it for the time it takes to "get it".
Of course, this is just speculation. But if you have any publishing credits, you should include them with your entry.
If you are interested in entering a writing contest you might want to find a list of common themes in the type of writing you are considering. I was talking to someone who has judged a poetry contest before and she said that something like 90 percent of the poems were depressing, about how awful a person's life is. She said even when the poem was beautiful, it didn't stand out from the crowd because it wasn't an original subject matter. I think the same thing happens with other contests, and I've seen lists of what to avoid because it's too common in sci-fi and fantasy and horror. So, if you are serious about fiction or poetry writing contests you should check this out before you even start writing.