Thursday, May 10, 2012


Over the years I have heard many discussions and read many comments on blogs and emails about “rules” for writing fiction. I have also known discussions about submission guidelines to publishers and agents. Very rarely have I heard discussions about Entry Rules for writers’ contests. I for one have rather taken for granted that these rules are read and followed carefully. The last few weeks I have seen for myself, and been considerably surprised, the number of writers who either do not read and digest contest rules, or seem to think they can somehow get away with breaking them.

My local writers’ group has just sponsored a short story contest. As my postal address was used to receive the entries, I quickly checked each one to make sure the entry form was filled in correctly, the fee paid, the story complied with the word length and the name of the author was not on the manuscript. These and others requirements were all clearly stated in the contest rules.

There have been numerous times over the years I have been one of the judges for various writing contests. Those manuscripts I received had already been through the hands of coordinators. Any entries that had not obeyed the contest rules had already been disqualified so I never did see any of those. However, I have heard far too many stories of why entries have had to be disqualified. If the rule says to send only the first fifty pages of a novel in a certain size and type of font, it means exactly that. A one-page synopsis means exactly one page. Some do not understand that a synopsis is far more than a back cover blurb.

A few days ago those of us on our short story contest committee met. We were to commence reading entries to start the process of selecting the best ten to forward to the final judge. I had to report and show that several entries were well under the word limit. We briefly discussed whether they should be disqualified. Judges find it difficult enough to choose winners from stories that vary in length from 1500 to 2000 words. Despite the fact some of those entries may have been excellent short stories, in fairness to all the other entrants sadly we agreed they had to be disqualified.

This made me understand even more why some manuscripts are rejected by editors and agents. Some writers simply do not study the “Rules” stated as “submission guidelines” or if they do, hope “just this once” it would be over-looked.

For example, if a submission guideline for a particular line or genre book has a word limit, what must an editor think when the manuscript is many hundreds of words over or under it? If an agent or editor states they do not accept a particular type of book, e.g. poetry, children, romance, I wonder how many writers think they may be the “exception” to that request – or “rule”? I cannot help but wonder if this is at least one reason so many publishers these days state they will only accept submissions through an agent who can "disqualify" a manuscript. Of course, each agent must also know a publisher’s submission guidelines, what kind of books the publisher specifically states has no interest in even considering.

And briefly back to those other “Rules” I mentioned before. We do all know there are indeed basic rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling (although these even vary between different countries!). Unfortunately at times some try to make suggestions how to make manuscripts stronger a rule for all fiction. It is generally agreed that we must know “the rules” to know just how to be able to break them when necessary to try and make our stories shine. Certainly very experienced, multi-published authors may be able to break some “rules” successfully but I would issue a warning to beginner writers here.

I thoroughly agree with Brandilyn Collins who simply declares, “Story rules!” And her stories do certainly shine!

However, those kind of “rules” are more about the technique of story-telling. They do not apply to entry requirements, guidelines, rules for writers’ contests.
Do read and digest those entry rules – and follow them the very best you can! You never know, you might be a winner!
Mary Hawkins is a best-selling inspirational romance author.
A Queensland farmer’s daughter, she became a registered nurse before going to Bible College. She and her minister husband have three adult children and five grandchildren, enjoyed over 47 years of ministry including church planting in Australia, two years in England, three short term mission trips to Africa and now live in Tasmania, Australia's island state. Her 19th title, Justice at Baragula was released May, 2011 and was a CALEB fiction finalist in 2011. To read more about this Australian author click here 
She is also on Facebook as MaryHawkinsAustralianAuthor.


  1. I'm one of those who treats writing "rules" as suggestions more than edicts, but as a contest judge I do expect submission rules to be applied. If I've agreed to judge the first five pages of a ms and someone submits six or seven, I get very crabby. And you don't want to make a judge crabby! I think a contestant must remember that she only one of many entrants. Five pages x 10 entries is 50 pages in total. I didn't agree to do any more than that.

  2. So true, Alice. I am also rather surprised that for a short story contest a few did not have computer word count. I am told there are still writers who do not use computers.

  3. Great post Mary! I always think it's so sad when people don't follow rules carefully when entering contests. Entering contests takes a great deal of effort - and often at a cost of a much personal angst. It takes courage to put your work 'out there' and ask for people to judge it, and there's both stress and hope involved - and a lot of nail biting.

    But to go to all that effort and put yourself through that - only to fail because you didn't pay close enough attention to the rules? Insane. And as said: sad!

    Of course there are people who think they're beyond mere mortal rules - those who cavalierly just tramp in and expect that someone will overlook their mistakes and give them a pass. I have no sympathy for those people I'm afraid, and the only way they'll learn is to be disqualified.This is just arrogance.

    Like the woman at the checkout line the other day. It was the 8 items or less line. The supermarket was really going off - long lines at every checkout. Of course the fast lane was moving through simply because each customer had only a couple of items - and fair enough. I was in this line, along with several others. One of these was a gentle elderly lady and another was a smart looking young woman with a laden trolley.

    Thinking she was helping, the elderly lady said (very gently), 'Dear, this is the eight items only line. The girl might turn you away.'

    The young woman smugly replied: 'No she won't. Look at this line-up. They'll put me through just to keep the line moving.'

    I said nothing, but I secretly (and meanly) hoped that the operator did indeed ask her to step aside. I didn't find out as I was ahead of her - but your post reminded me of her.

    There are those who make honest mistakes and those who blatantly flaunt rules. I would like to think that those who broke your rules made honest mistakes. But then again - that's why we have rules and instructions...

    Thanks Mary!

  4. Yes, I think some forget judges are people, not computers. We get so used to answering machines & the like. Have a good time at your judging, Mary!

  5. It's quite amazing to me that people think disregarding the rules of a contest is unimportant. Seems to me a writer would want to give his or herself the best chance, which means doing as instructed. Shows how rebellious people are by nature.

  6. Okay. this is up on Ray's computer and so the photo is him and not me, Mary, his "other half". LOL.
    Good comments, Rita and Dale. I'm not too sure about the "fun" in judging because I find it a really big responsibility!
    Dale, sometimes I wonder if the danger is also becoming a touch arrogant and thinking our writing is so strong the rules don't apply - even in contests.