Secrets to Win Exeter Writers Short Story Competition

How do members of Exeter Writers judge our annual short story competitions?

How can you be sure your own entry will actually be read, let alone be considered for longlisting, shortlisting, or even a prize?

You can be absolutely certain that every story you send us will be read. I’ve been a short story competition reader and/or judge for many years, and I’ll swear on any Bible you care to offer me that I always read every word of every story sent to me. 

After all, I never know when a brilliant twist or revelation is going to surprise me, pull everything together, and finally make sense of a story that’s had me wondering right up to the closing line.

What can you do to please someone like me?

First of all, have you written (or are you currently writing) a short story, rather than a few pages of descriptive prose or a series of observations? 

A short story should ask (or at least imply) a question or challenge right at the outset, go on to develop this question or challenge, and offer some kind of resolution at the end. 

It should introduce a central character (this could be a human being, but it could also be a fox, elf, robot or indeed anything you like standing in for a human being) from whose point of view the reader will see all or most of the action, and with whom you hope your reader will identify, even if there are lots of other characters involved. 

How many characters are too many? 

This will depend on the subject matter of your story. Maybe it’s set during a football match, at which there’ll be a crowd of thousands. But a prizewinning short story about a group of people will almost certainly focus on just one or at most two individuals: the person or people who will lead your reader into your imaginary world.

How will you entice the reader into your imaginary world? You’ll do this by promising there will be something interesting to find out. So, as you planned (and then wrote) your story, did you ask yourself:

  • Whose story am I telling?
  • Who did what to whom? 
  • Why did they do it? 
  • What was the end result? 
  • Did the character(s) in my story get what he, she or they deserved? 

You will need to know!

After you have roughed out your first draft, look at your story again and check to see if your central character has moved on: if there is some physical and/or emotional progress in this central character’s life, even if it’s in a very small way. What has changed for your central character? What has he or she learned? How will this new knowledge alter the course of his or her life for the better – or for the worse? 

Does your story seem likely to deliver reader-satisfaction by offering your reader a surprising but also a believable and appropriate conclusion? 

Maybe you’re hoping your reader will decide what happens in the end? But you’re the author, so it’s your job to decide how your story ends! 

Your ending doesn’t necessarily mean you must present your central character with any permanent solutions. You don’t need to suggest that from now on this person’s life will be all sunshine and roses. But you do need to show that something has changed.

What is a central character? 

It’s the character without whom a story would not even exist. Snow White, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood – their stories couldn’t manage without them! The central character is also the person (or fox, or elf, or robot) around whom the action revolves: the one who is most likely to make the choice, mistake or decision that precipitates the denouement of the story, be it a triumph or a tragedy. 

The word count limit in a short story competition entry doesn’t usually allow for lengthy pages of set-up, backstory, or for long, physical descriptions of the characters themselves. So, as you write, always keep asking yourself: what does the reader actually need to know? At what point does the reader need to know it? 

It’s easy to paint a convincing portrait of a character in very few of those precious words by giving this person an age-appropriate first name, and by mentioning clothing, habits and lifestyle in passing. 

Titles are sometimes the last thing to be decided, but always bear in mind that a good one can do both you and your story a big favour, getting the reader to ask those important questions straight away. 

You’ve written your first draft and maybe made some notes on possible changes or developments. Now it’s time to read the rules of the competition again and find out if your story still meets the entrance requirements. I know this sounds as if I’m stating the obvious. But many entrants don’t appear to do this, so their entries are disqualified. 

The most common reasons for disqualification are failing to follow the rules, failing to submit an entry by the closing date, and failing to pay the entry fee.

What kinds of stories tend to win the Exeter Writers competitions?

They’re the ones that manage to intrigue, engage and also surprise us: stories that introduce us to central characters with whom we can identify and about whom we will want to care. Some sparks of originality or maybe an ingenious take on a traditional tale are always welcome. 

It would be worth reading a few of our winning stories so you get a clue or two about the sorts of things we generally seem to enjoy. Do any of us write fiction themselves? You can find out by looking up our member details on this website. 

What kinds of stories tend not to win our competitions? 

We’re not keen on clich├ęd endings, so maybe don’t enter a story in which you reveal that what happened was all a dream. 

We are very happy to read crime, thriller and mystery fiction, but we don’t need to be disgusted by descriptions of gratuitous violence or cruelty that don’t serve any purpose in the story. 

As for romantic fiction – we probably won’t need to read pages and pages about people having sex, but we will be interested to learn how the lovers met, what happened when they fell in love, and what went right or wrong for them. 

Some themes and storylines have been done to death in recent years: for example, that old chestnut of her husband’s not having an affair, he’s organising a surprise party

We all take different paths through life. So, although some writers start winning literary competitions right at the beginning of their careers, don’t forget that others will have served long apprenticeships and practised their craft for many years before success came their way.

Good luck, and happy writing!


Margaret James is an author of historical and contemporary fiction as well as journalist for Writing Magazine. She has co-authored several creative writing books with fellow member Cathie Hartigan and also teaches creative writing at the London School of Journalism.