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Circular Library

Entering Competitions

Electra Rhodes

As the judge for the flash part of the 2022 Competition, I was asked to say a little about what I’m looking for.


There’s a lot I could say about the kind of things I enjoy reading, but I also like to be surprised, so rather than be too specific about my aspirations for the inbox, I thought I’d offer you something that comes at the question from a tangent. 

I recently wrote a twitter thread about the various things I’ve observed when reading/judging competitions over the last year. So I thought I’d share them with you here, in the hope they’re relevant for other submissions too.

1. Theme - if the contest/journal has a theme, for the love of every tired reader/judge please, PLEASE reference it in some way. Obliquely is fine. Your beautiful story that has nothing to do with the theme AT ALL will not make the cut. Save your entry fee! If the competition has no theme, have at it and maybe try to go with something a little unexpected.

2. SPAG - one or two slips won’t bug most readers/judges, but frequent slips in spelling, punctuation or grammar will. With one proviso, do whatever the heck you like with SPAG as long as whatever you do is clearly and intentionally a feature of the piece. (This is particularly true of dialect, idiolect, and experimental work.)

3. Story (part 1) - if the competition asks for a story, please submit an actual story (not a column, blog post, extract from a longer work, personal essay or poem). Likewise, if the competition asks for a flash, write a flash, which for some places can include something that’s a very short story, but for most, probably, doesn’t include a prose poem. 

4. Consistency - stay on target - voice, language, tone, POV, tense, ‘plot’, pronouns, etc whatever your piece is about, keep it all consistent, UNLESS you’re doing some kind of fractured/hybrid thing with multiple voices, braided plots, divergent tone and so on. 

5. Story (part 2) - please have something happen. Doesn’t have to be conflict. Doesn’t have to follow the traditional western story arc. Doesn’t have to all be neatly tied up at the end. But, don’t just write a beautiful vignette or series of descriptions.

6. Top and Tail - don’t spend a quarter of the word count setting the context, and don’t over explain at the end. Trust the reader, even just a little bit. But. BUT! Ermagard please, PLEASE have some kind of drawing to a close - aka landing it. In other words don’t leave the reader wondering if they’re missing the final paragraph or page.

7. Story (part 3) - show, don’t tell. I know this is writer 101, I know. But, please. Really and truly. Show is dynamic. Tell is, well, kinda dull. 

8. Tropes, ‘archetypes’, plot types - every reader/judge has their pet peeves and you can’t know what they’ll be, but really think about what tropes, ‘archetypes’, or plot types you’re leaning into in your piece. Don’t know which ones you’ve written? Do your research.

9. Editing and Revision - sometimes the writer didn’t do much more than vomit up an initial draft before sending it in. The central idea is 👌🏼 but the execution isn’t there. Revision means getting everything squared away so the story shines. Writing is revising. Usually involving multiple drafts. And that’s a good thing!

7. Titles - free words! Free words. Right there. Use them. To set context. To open the door into the world of the piece. To situate the reader. To name the central ‘thesis’ of the piece. Even if it’s not brilliant, for goodness sake don’t leave that bit blank.

8. Follow the guidelines - I know it’s a pain to have to check the peculiarities of each competition or magazine. But, do it. Some places are chill if the font size is wrong or the spacing is. Some are not. Don’t rule yourself out at the start.

9. Read up on how the competition is run before you enter - don’t like the longlisting, shortlisting, winner announcement strategies? Don’t like the fee to prize ratios? Don’t like the fees? Don’t like the kind of work that seems to place? It may not be the comp for you.

10. Pressed send and spotted a howler? - many of us have discovered the best editor is the submit button. But. Some competitions will let you make that change. What’s the best that can happen? Ask.

11. Missed a deadline - there will be another competition just around the corner. Even if it’s themed, chances are it’ll come round again in the next twelve months. Let it rest, you might even polish it further before the next opportunity turns up.

12. You didn’t make the LL? Didn’t get a submission accepted? Something went wrong with the process? Don’t be a git to the organisers. For sure, query what’s happened if there seems to be/is a glitch. But no need to flame folk doing their best. (Maybe check #9 again?)

And that’s it. Twelve Top Tips for giving your submission the best chance at an acceptance or award. Good luck with the Autumn Competition, I can’t wait to read your words. 

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