Home > Columns > From a Cabin in the Woods by Members of Bethlehem Writers Group > Tips for Writing for a Contest by Carol L. Wright

It’s always exciting to enter a writing contest—at least until it comes to the actual writing.

Since I both write for submission and run the annual Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story award competition, I’ve developed a few tips for writing to a theme, keeping within the word count limits, and what to avoid. I hope these might be of help.

And we’re making a special announcement at the end!

When writing to a theme:

  • Write a new story instead of trying to wedge thematic elements into an existing story. It shows.
  • Don’t write the first thing that comes into your head. It popped into a hundred other heads, too. You don’t want to be competing with a hundred other stories similar to yours.
  • Brainstorm to find a fresh slant on the theme. Writing something from a slightly different angle will help your story stand out.
  • Be creative with your title. Too many entries will use the theme in the title. You want your title to be unique.

Staying within word limits:

  • Start with your protagonist in the middle of action. Hook readers immediately.
  • Refer to, but don’t overly explain backstory. You can imply an unhealed wound or past conflict between characters, but in a short story, the reader does not need to know the details unless they have a direct relationship to the current plot.
  • Keep descriptions pithy. A few words can paint a picture.
  • Use contractions, compound words, or hyphenated words. These count as only one word each
  • Do not use ellipses to show pauses or gaps. They are correctly typed as: space-dot-space-dot-space-dot-space. Unfortunately, each dot counts as a word! Use dashes instead. Some word counters count words connected by a dash as one word!
  • Simplify verbs. For example: she left, instead of she was gone or she had departed. You could even have a one-word sentence: Gone!
  • Use vivid verbs. It eliminates the need for adverbs or adjectives. For example: the storm raged instead of the storm was blowing strongly.
  • Use the words you need, but not one word more. Remember, the word limit is a maximum, not a minimum or a target word count. No contest judge wants to read a story that appears to be padded with extra words.
  • On the other hand, if the contest calls for stories of up to 5000 words, a very short story, e.g. 500 words, will not be competitive. You cannot do the world building or character development in a few words that you could accomplish with more words.

Contest Don’ts:

  • Don’t flatter judges in a cover letter. They know it’s just designed to butter them up and can seem annoying.
  • Don’t email the contest runner with questions that are answered in the call for submissions. Really annoying.
  • Don’t argue with the rules, break the rules, or ask for exceptions to the rules. The rules are there for a reason and have to be applied consistently to be a fair contest.
  • Don’t complain that winning stories aren’t as good as yours. All judging is subjective—and you cannot be objective about your own work.
  • And definitely don’t ask for names and email addresses of judges so you can complain to them!

Now for the announcement:

The Bethlehem Writers Roundtable announces its 2023 Short Story Award competition will be open from January 1 through March 31, 2023.

The theme is Season’s Readings. We are seeking stories of 2000 words or fewer that relate to the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

Cost to enter: $15

Winners receive:

  • First Place: $250 and publication in the upcoming anthology, Seasons Readings: More Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. Anticipated publication: Fall 2024
  • Second Place: $100 and publication in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable online literary journal
  • Third Place: $50 and publication in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable online literary journal.

Our guest judge for 2023 is multi award-winning short story writer and professional editor Barb Goffman. Be sure to read her interview in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Winter 2023 issue, coming out on January 1.

You can get all your questions answered on our website: http://bwgwritersroundtable.com/short-story-award-2/. I hope to be reading your story soon!

Good luck—and happy writing!

~ Carol L. Wright

About BWG
About BWG
The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC (BWG), founded in 2006, is a community of mutually supportive, fiction and nonfiction authors based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The members are as different from each other as their stories, spanning a range of genres including: children’s, fantasy, humor, inspiration, literary, memoir, mystery, paranormal, romance, science fiction, women’s fiction, and young adult.

SalSally Paradysz wrote from a book-lined cabin in the woods beside the home she built from scratch. She was an ordained minister of the Assembly of the Word, founded in 1975. For two decades, she provided spiritual counseling and ministerial assistance. Sal completed undergraduate and graduate courses in business and journalism. She took courses at NOVA, and served as a hotline, hospital, and police interview volunteer in Bucks County, PA. She was definitely owned by her two Maine Coon cats, Kiva and Kodi.

Sal is missed by all who knew her.


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The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC (BWG), founded in 2006, is a community of mutually supportive, fiction and nonfiction authors based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The members are as different from each other as their stories, spanning a range of genres including: children’s, fantasy, humor, inspiration, literary, memoir, mystery, paranormal, romance, science fiction, women’s fiction, and young adult.
  • VERONICA JORGE says:

    Hi Carol, Thanks for these very helpful tips and reminders!

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