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How to Submit a Short Story & Win a Writing Competition

Increase your chances of winning a writing competition or getting accepted for publication when you submit a short story following our top tips.

Let’s increase your odds of winning that short story competition or getting your essay published in that magazine. Here’s a list of our best tips to get you ready to submit a short story.

Get ready to submit a short story

I’m a book coach, but I’m also a writer who submits essays, articles, and short stories widely. It increases my reach and builds my readership, forces me to practice different writing styles and meet word counts, and financially benefits my writing career. There are many reasons to submit a short story and today we’re going to increase your odds of winning competitions or getting published.

Last year I won The Hal Prize in nonfiction and the prizes– including publication, a week-long writing retreat, financial compensation, and a lovely, hand-crafted mug–definitely made the three evenings I spent writing and editing worth while.

Rebecca Zornow

And, as a former magazine editor-in-chief, I’ve also been on the other end of the submission process. I learned how quickly judges and editors assess a short story or essay and what makes them choose the top piece.

To help you on your way, I’m gong to share my best tips and methods to increase your odds of success, but please note this article does not focus on craft or short story building (if you need help with these items, our Short Story Review will assess your work and tell you exactly how to clean up the plot, pacing, AND your overall craft). 

Before You Write

If you have a specific competition or publication in mind, there are a few things you can do before writing.

  1. Read the previous year’s winning stories or the latest issue. This will give you a sense of the common qualities that made the winning pieces standout.
  2. Research the judge or editor. Read what they select and publish. If they’re a writer themselves, see what styles and topics get them excited. A quick online search can turn up FAQs, interviews, and direct statements about what they look for in a winning piece. 
  3. Follow the publication on social media so you can ensure you get any updates. This will also demonstrate you’re a fan and involved member of the literary community should they choose to Google you.

While You Draft

It’s easiest if you write with a certain publication or writing competition in mind, but if you’re writing something you plan to submit widely on spec, be certain to keep the reader in mind. Ensure you’re either entertaining the reader, or giving great information–and the expectation on both of these fronts is always higher than you think so reach high.

Edits to make

  1. Rewrite until you have a dynamite first sentence and a clear first paragraph that orientates the reader.
  2. Focus on your ending until you’re certain your character demonstrates growth or the theme comes full circle.
  3. Let a short story sit so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
  4.  Employ a critique partner, friend, or editor to get solid feedback. You have to be careful about whose advice you take, but when you find a good one, keep them close. Nicole’s been my critique partner for eight years and I still learn new things from her. About my latest short story, she said, “I have come to find that with your writing, you have the most trouble in the beginning, setting things up. But after the intro, your stories generally carry on strong. This one is no exception.”
  5. To make sure you honor the word count requirement and make the piece as taut as possible, cut filler words. We each have our own pet fillers to look out for, but I like this list of words to avoid from The Write Practice.
  6. Read the piece aloud, or have software read it to you. If you ask Word to do the reading, don’t look at the screen but listen intently. You’ll hear misspelled words or turn of phrases that sound awkward.
  7. Print the document and go over it carefully for any last mistakes. If a judge thinks your piece and another are perfectly equal in content or story, they’ll be sure to pick the piece without any typos.

Submit a Short Story

Researching, writing, and editing are huge pieces of this process, but I try to set aside more time to submit than I think I’ll need so I don’t rush the final step.

  1. Reread the prompt or call for submission request one more time to make sure everything is tailored exactly to what they want.
  2. Format the document to their exact specifications. If there are none, I suggest following this guide from William Shunn. If it’s a writing competition, be wary of where you list your name to support blind judging requirements. 
  3. Write a professional cover letter. If you’re reaching out to an editor or someone that doesn’t know your work is just about to zoom to their inbox, state exactly why you think it’s a good fit for their publication, demonstrate that you read their work, and give a 1-2 sentence professional bio. If your plan is to submit a short story to a writing competition, state the title, word count, and category you’re submitting to. In all cases, be sure to thank the recipient for their consideration. 
  4. Before you send it all out, sit for a minute. If there’s any last nagging thoughts, listen to them–whatever it is is worth checking.
  5. Finally, submit widely to competitions of all levels (just like applying to safety and reach colleges). If something is rejected, read it over, edit some more, and submit again. Publishing and even writing competitions are subjective outlets influenced by a variety of factors. As a writer, you will undergo a lot of rejection to get few successes. 

If you feel something’s not working, or you want to speed up your journey, check out our Short Story Review service. We can help tighten up your work and show you how to improve. 

If you’re in it for the long haul, you may also find value in our blog post Create a Writer Business Plan. Best of luck on your submissions!

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