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How NOT to Enter a Screenwriting Contest

By Brad Schreiber

When I founded the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction in 2000, I did it to honor my mother, who wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, and taught writing in San Mateo County in Northern California.

When I formulated the rules for entering the contest, I thought I would never have a problem with any entries. Writers would simply read the rules, in Writers Market, on the website or elsewhere, and that would be that.

What planet was I living on?

Based on my administrating the MSP, and judging other prose, screenwriting and playwriting contests, here is a checklist for how NOT to win a writing contest (irrespective of your writing talent).

1. Don't provide contact information

Imagine someone wants to give you a prize and does not have your address, email or phone number. I ask for email addresses for entrants for the MSP because it is faster and you don't have to include a SASE. But if a contest asks for a specific way to contact you, provide it.

2. Do not include the proper entry fee

You might actually wait to hear of the results of your writing contest entry, not knowing it has been trashed because you forgot to include the entry fee. Or you wrote your check in Mexican pesos or Japanese yen. The MSP is international and I do get folks who unfortunately send foreign checks and currency. Every once in a while, I have received a US check that bounced, even though my entry fee is a mere five dollars. How sad is that, bouncing a check for five bucks? I call or email the entrants, because I figure if they don't have five dollars in their checking account, they're a lot worse off than me. But not all contest administrators will take the time.

3. Write in a style or genre other than the contest's emphasis

I know humor is subjective. But I can safely say this: most people will get no chuckles from a straightforward piece about a relative dying of a disease. And yet, my humor contest has received entries that seemed to have nothing to do with humor. I allow all forms, so that is not a problem. I'll take a humorous grocery list. But if a contest asks for poetry, don't send a monologue or essay and assume the contest will reconsider the definition of their literary form. And if you're entering a humor contest and writing about someone dying, make it a funny disease, will you?

4. Ignore formatting requests

I would agree, it is a cranky and miserable contest administrator who would rule out your work because you have put your name and address on the manuscript when you were asked to not do so. But you must remember this: we who run literary contests look at hundreds of entries. It saves us a great deal of time (and I don't get paid for running my contest) if you use staples instead of paper clips or use 12 point Courier or Times New Roman instead of 8 point Eyestrain American.

While a good contest administrator should never throw out your submission just for not following directions, you do not want your reader to be utterly disgusted with you, before reading your opening sentence.

5. Don't Bother Proofreading

Talent speaks for itself, they say. But stupid mistakes, like not proofreading your work, can sing loudly off key and drown out your talent. If you have written a piece a contest likes and they like another entry as well, but your work has spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, which one has a better chance of winning? It is what I refer to as the Annoyance Factor. It can sway a reader, even unconsciously, away from choosing your work, regardless of your fine craft as a writer. And speaking of proofing, do try to get the name of the person or contest right too. I can live with being referred to as Barry, Bret or Brian. I've been called worse. But others may take offense at being referred to by the wrong name. Especially if you open your cover letter "Dear Bob" and the contest administrator is named Bonnie.

6. Keep Bugging Them Over and Over and Over Until They Reply

In my experience, some writing contests are not very good at notifying entrants that an entry has been received. As frustrating as this is, it does not give you permission to call or send frequent emails of increasing hostility, requesting receipt confirmation. You might consider including a stamped postcard for notification of receipt. Always try to ascertain how and when the results of the judging will be announced, before you submit.

7. Submit to Any Old Contest, Anywhere

Look at how long a contest has been in operation, how much money is awarded, who does the judging and how you think it will look on your resume if you win. Fees tend to be more for screenplay versus prose contests, but the prize money should be more too. Does the contest include more than just prize money? Access to influential people? Publication in hard copy or online? Or are they just paying you $25 and giving you a paperweight?

For more information on the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Non-Fiction, please click here

Meet the Author: Brad Schreiber

Brad Schreiber has written six books, including the humor writing how-to, What Are You Laughing At?  He has worked as a TV writer-producer at PBS, sold and optioned screenplays and was director of development for film/TV director Jonathan Kaplan. He was VP of Storytech Literary Consulting, founded by Chris Vogler, for 11 years. Schreiber now handles consultations for clients worldwide at www.bradschreiber.com. He has taught at the American Film Institute, Gotham Writers Workshop in NY, UCLA, and in Canada and Mexico, among many others. Awards include those from National Press Foundation, Albee Foundation, Kingman Film Awards, and the Int...