Mastering Writing Competitions: Insider Tips from a Two-Time Winner

06 Apr, 2024 | Blog Articles, English Language Articles, Get the Edge, Humanities Articles, Writing Articles

I’m Costas, a third-year History and Spanish student at the University of Oxford. During my time in secondary school and sixth form, I participated in various writing competitions, and I was able to win two of them (the national ISMLA Original Writing Competition and the Routes into Languages West Midlands Mother Tongue Other Tongue competition).

In this article I’d like to share some practical tips and advice based on what I learnt from my experiences. Participating in writing competitions such as OxBright’s Essay Competition is such a great way to challenge yourself beyond schoolwork and encourage creativity and individual thought, and they’re always a brilliant addition to a UCAS application!

What Are the Benefits of Writing Competitions for Students?

Participating in a writing competition can provide numerous benefits and opportunities for students, as they can give you the chance to broaden your skill set, boost your confidence, and gain access to new resources and connections. Here are just a few of the ways that taking part could benefit you.

I. Skill development

Writing competitions provide an excellent platform for secondary school students to practise crafting compelling narratives, refining grammar and expanding vocabulary. These skills are extremely valuable in any context that involves writing, from schoolwork and exams to university and job applications, from university study and working in academia to the worlds of journalism, content creation and beyond.

Participating allows you to develop critical thinking skills through analysis and interpretation of prompts or themes. While everyone is given the same prompt, it’s your individual approach and response that the judges are interested in and that will give you the edge in a competition (see our guide to writing prompts for some ideas and inspiration). The skills developed by actively engaging with and analysing a given theme will prepare you well for life beyond secondary school.

Writing competitions are also a great opportunity for students to experiment with different writing styles, genres and techniques to enhance their versatility as writers. This provides an exciting chance to learn to work creatively within a given form, and to develop a personal approach and voice when writing.

II. Recognition and validation

Winning or placing in a writing competition can boost your confidence and self-esteem, as it provides you with acknowledgement of your writing achievements. Recognition from competitions run by academic and educational organisations, and judged by professionals and experts, can validate your passion for writing as a legitimate talent and interest.

It’s good to feel that your work is valued and enjoyed, and it’s important to recognise the impact this can have on your progress. Receiving awards or accolades for your writing efforts can motivate you to continue pursuing your creative endeavours and literary pursuits. 

Even if you don’t win, competitions sometimes provide some positive and constructive feedback to encourage you to develop your skills, and the feeling of having participated is in itself highly motivating. Although I didn’t win or get a special mention in the first few competitions I entered, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and this encouraged me to participate in the competitions I went on to win.

III. Academic and personal growth

Participating in writing competitions helps you to develop skills in goal-setting, time management and self-discipline, all essential skills in further and higher education and the world of work. It also helps you to cultivate resilience and perseverance as you face challenges and setbacks in your writing journey, and find ways to overcome them.

Moreover, exploring new topics, themes and perspectives through competitions expands your intellectual horizons and fosters a lifelong love of learning. Competition briefs might even introduce you to a new subject area you’d like to pursue beyond the competition, in future degrees, research or career paths.

IV. Scholarships and awards

Many writing competitions offer scholarships, cash prizes or publication opportunities as incentives for participants. This adds to the sense of achievement and can open up new experiences that make you stand out as a prospective student or employee.

For example, there are over £100,000 worth of prizes to be won in OxBright’s Essay Competition, including a place at our residential summer school, a place on an online course or internship, and a Certificate of Achievement.

Oxford Scholastica students at graduation

V. Community and networking

Participating in writing competitions can allow students to connect with fellow writers, mentors and professionals in the literary community. Joining writing groups, workshops or clubs through competitions can provide you with opportunities to share ideas and receive support. 

This not only provides the chance to learn from professionals, but can also help you to feel part of literary circles. Building relationships with experienced writers, editors and publishers fosters guidance and mentorship for you in your writing endeavours. These connections could also help you find and gain access to future opportunities.

12 Insider Tips to Ace a Writing Competition

A pen and notebook lying flat on a dark background

1. Make a list of the requirements

This first one may sound obvious, but it’s easy to accidentally stray from the guidelines set by the competition. Some things to bear in mind include: 

  • Minimum and/or maximum word count. This is very important as your entry could be disqualified if it fails to keep within this.
  • Form. Is it meant to be a poem, a short story, an essay, a script or something else?
  • Prompt material. A question, statement, title, quote or photograph, for example.
  • Suggested approaches. This might be a character perspective, line of argument, or particular image or theme.

By keeping a clear list of exactly what is asked of you, you can reference it as you work and ensure your writing meets the requirements. After all, you don’t want to finish your work only to realise that it needs to be partly or fully rewritten.

2. Plan out the timescale

While a competition may have a seemingly-distant deadline, you don’t want to fall into the trap of leaving it to the last minute and having to rush. Note down the deadline on your calendar or in your planner, then schedule in some time to work on your entry. 

You might want to set a few personal goals based on how much needs to be done, and by when. For example, you could set a date for having completed a plan, and another date to have finished a first draft. Make sure you leave enough time to edit and proofread.

3. Seek inspiration

It’s best to give yourself some time to think about the different ways you could approach the topic/question/theme set by the writing competition. For example, you could consider any ideas you may have had in the past, such as storylines, poetic images, characters or arguments, and see if any of them can be adapted to fit the competition’s requirements. 

Alternatively, you may need to seek out material you haven’t encountered before. This might involve reading books or news articles, visits to new or familiar places, or even something as simple as a walk. However, try not to put too much pressure on yourself, and go about your daily routine – it’s often while doing ordinary tasks that you’ll have a eureka moment.

4. Do your research

This is especially important for essay competitions, but applies to any kind of writing competition. For example, for both of my winning entries (a poem from the perspective of Queen Joanna I of Castile, and a short story inspired by a painting by Goya, a Spanish artist), I had to carefully research the historical context in which I was setting my narratives. This not only helped to inform what I was writing, but also provided great material to enrich my work and bring the stories and characters to life.

Sources might include books, websites, podcasts, articles, blogs, images and much more.

When essay-writing, backing up your ideas and arguments with evidence and research is essential to making your work convincing. When reading, it’s good to constantly ask yourself what you think about a particular line of thinking, whether you agree or disagree, or if you feel you could provide a more nuanced perspective. Including this in your essay will help make your work stand out to the judges.

Competitions often require referencing in your work, so make sure you use reliable sources and keep a note of where you’re finding each idea or piece of information. That way it’s easier for you to add any necessary footnotes, a list of sources or a bibliography to your entry.

Rows of books on shelves, with bust statues nearby

5. Collect and brainstorm ideas before structuring

Try not to worry too much about the structure of your entry at first, and start by collecting any ideas, themes, images and descriptions you come up with, and any information and arguments you’ve read about. Jotting all of this down in mind-maps, lists or posters for example (whichever works best for you), can help you visualise your work. This makes it easier to find the best way to structure your work later on.

6. Take some time to plan

While it might be tempting to dive straight into writing, and this can be helpful when you have the momentum to write a particular part of your entry, it’s still important to plan. This helps to ensure your work is coherent and each section leads smoothly into the next one. 

For example, you may come up with a few stanzas of a poem or paragraphs of a story or essay before planning. However, it’s always good to take a step back and plan exactly where they’ll fit best within your piece, based on other content you want to include.

7. Play with form

Don’t be afraid to experiment with the form set by the competition. For example, you could research different types of poems, narrative types or ways to structure an essay. Sometimes competitions are more specific – for example, if it should be written in first or third person – but there’s always scope to find your personal approach.

Often, the best entries are those that creatively engage with the possibilities and constraints of the form they’re written in.

8. Experiment with imagery

For more descriptive pieces, it can be helpful to research literary devices and techniques. 

You might want to choose certain motifs or literary images to recur throughout the piece, which can help to provide stylistic unity to your work. Exploring the possibilities of a particular set of images or concepts to be presented in different ways can help to develop your work and showcase your creativity and imagination. 

For example, in my poem about Joanna ‘The Mad’ of Castile, I explored the weight of the charge of ‘madness’ and what it implied about illness, suffering, suppression and control.

Alternatively, using lots of different ways to describe the subject at hand can highlight your versatility and creative potential as a writer.

These tips can also be applied to essay writing, as particular case studies, anecdotes and imagery can help to anchor the focus of your work, highlighting your personal take on the subject.

9. Pay attention to tone

It’s important to bear in mind the tone you want to set for your piece. Will it be light-hearted and humorous, bitterly ironic, serious, dramatic or tragic (or something else entirely)? Think about which approach works best for the competition requirements, and try to be consistent with your tone. 

If you want to change the tenor of the piece as it develops – starting off more light-hearted but ending with a serious note, for example – make sure you’re purposeful with the way the tone changes.

10. Don’t give up!

Everyone suffers from writer’s block sometimes, and it’s normal to get a bit stuck at some stage in the writing process. Try not to get disheartened, and instead take a break and come back to working a bit later. You might feel the need to seek out a new source of inspiration, or your brain may simply be tired and you may need a break to gather your thoughts.

11. Take breaks when you need them

You might get into the ‘zone’ and want to blitz your way through the essay at once, but often we need to take a few breaks to get the cognitive juices flowing and persevere through any bouts of writer’s block as mentioned above.

Exercising, listening to music, playing an instrument, reading for pleasure, and meeting up with friends are just some of the ways that you can take a healthy break. The most important thing is to pay attention to how you’re feeling and do what’s best for you.

12. Proofread, proofread and proofread again!

Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a break and come back to proofread and edit where necessary. Pay attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar, and potentially consider alternative ways of phrasing sentences or structuring your ideas. 

Once you’ve gone through your work once or twice, it’s a good idea to ask for a second (and third) pair of eyes to check for typos and give some feedback. A competition may limit the input of the help of others such as teachers, but as long as you keep within the guidelines, asking for others’ responses is a good way to refine your work and get a feel for how others may respond to your writing. This way, you can ensure everything makes sense and is as effective as possible.

Writing competitions are an amazing opportunity for your personal and academic development, as a way of practising and improving your writing skills, encouraging your creativity and interest, and connecting you to the literary community. 

I hope these tips will guide and encourage you with your writing competition applications. Just remember to have fun and let your creativity shine through!

Costas

By Costas Gavriel

Costas is currently studying a BA in History and Spanish at the University of Oxford, specialising mainly in medieval history and literature. His interests include reading widely, creative writing, and playing and listening to music.

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