How to… win a short story competition: from a judge and a winner

photo by Geoff Carter

by Sarah Dobbs

The Bristol Short Story Prize deadline is looming, in a nice way. But how do you win one of these wonderful things? I speak to Joe Melia, the competition’s judge, to try and gain an inside view and get some tips on how to win a writing competition. I also have a chat to Sarah Hilary, winner of the Sense Writing competition to see how she managed it.

Hi Joe, so can you tell us a bit about your role in the competition?

I’m the co-ordinator of Bristol Short Story Prize’s various activities – publicising and promoting the annual competition, administering the reading and judging of the stories, publishing the anthology, organising the work we do with schools and higher education establishments. This year we’re hosting our first one-day short story jamboree, ShortStoryVille, so there’s been plenty to organise for that, too.

So how do you decide which stories will make the longlist?

We have a team of readers who read the submissions and select stories for the second round. The longlist of 40 is then chosen from these stories. We encourage our readers and judges to be as objective and open as possible – to look for fresh and original work and to select stories they want to tell other people about, ones that they couldn’t stop thinking about, stories they want to read again. We don’t have a strict definition of what a short story is or should be – we like to be surprised and shown what a short story can be or do, what’s possible. There’s no “it must have a beginning, middle and end” criterion, or anything like that. We don’t rule anything out.

What do you think is the difference between shortlisted work and the winning entry?

All the stories on the shortlist are potential winners and getting on to the shortlist and published in the anthology is a really great achievement. The winning story is definitely the one that you can’t stop thinking about, the one that you want to accost people in the street about and stand next to them while they read it to find out what they think. 

Any other special tips for writers?

Read the rules, read the rules, read the rules. Definitely the most important thing to do. Also, don’t try to second guess what the judges or readers might like – write what you really want to.

When is the deadline for this year’s competition?

It’s fast approaching- 31st March.

Anything else to add?

Yes please! We’re putting on our first one-day short story festival, ShortStoryVille, on July 16th this year at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Lots of short story fun to be had. Details will be posted on our website in a month or so. ShortStoryVille will finish with this year’s awards ceremony. 

So that’s a judge’s point of view, and quite a cheering one. The idea that judges are looking for that story that you want to tell people about, well that’s the story we all want to write, isn’t it? There is often a sense of cynicism surrounding competitions and markets, you quite often see the same people appearing and wonder if there’s any elbow room for new voices. The conclusion here is that, as long as you do read and respond to the rules, the best way to get your voice heard is by writing the story you have to write.


Next up we have Sarah Hilary, winner of the Sense Competition, to give us a writer’s perspective.

Hi Sarah. Could you tell us what you’ve had published / shortlisted recently?

My story, ‘You Would Feel Your Heart Fall Over’, was Highly Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Contest 2010. I was also the winner of the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 with my story, ‘A Shanty for Sawdust and Cotton’, which was read by Miriam Margolyes at the award ceremony in London. Right now I’m working on a novel with the support of my agent, Jane Gregory.

How do you hone your work before sending out for markets/competitions?

I try to put a new story aside for a while before I look at it afresh. Not always easy, as I’m terribly impatient! But getting distance from your words really does help. Oh and I read the story out loud, always finding an error or two I’d missed when checking it on the page.

Do you have any hints and tips for budding short story writers?

Read! The Short Review website has recommended collections and links to sample stories. This really is the best way to find out what makes a good short story. And, of course, you must write and keep writing. If the idea of a 3,000 word story daunts you, start with flash fiction, which can be anything up to 1,000 words, but is often much shorter. There are some good writing forums online that will provide support and encouragement. I learnt a lot from participating in WriteWords‘ flash fiction forum.  The story published in Voices (an anthology forthcoming from the University Centre Blackburn), was written for a weekly writing challenge at WriteWords. Each consecutive sentence had to start with the letters that spell out F-L-A-S-H. It was a wonderful way of trying something I’d never done before, and the story that came out of it is one of my favourites.

Anything else you want to add…

Ultimately, writing is a solitary art. But you can learn a lot about your craft, and benefit from the stimulus and camaraderie of other writers, by joining writing groups, online or at libraries. Reviewing other writers’ work is also a great way of analysing what makes a story successful.


With the deadline for the Bristol Short Story Prize coming up at the end of the month, hopefully you plan on taking the advice of both judge and writer and submitting. Although the prize and prestige would be great, surely it’s the getting read that counts?

Explore Sarah Hilary’s blog here. You can hear an audio version of her forthcoming story in the Voices anthology here.

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