The Business of Writing

Simon Whaley's Resource For Writers

Run Out Of Things To Say?

I’m in the process of judging a couple of competitions at the moment, and there’s one observation that’s really standing out to me: Entries way under the maximum word count.

All competitions set a maximum word count. Entries that exceed this are disqualified. I’ve seen a few competitions that also have a minimum word count: but not many. I don’t feel comfortable setting a minimum word count, because if you’ve got something to say, and you can say it successfully in far fewer words than the maximum, I don’t believe an entrant should be forced to ‘pad’ just to make it meet a minimum word count threshold.

The competitions I’m judging at the moment have maximum word counts of 1,000 words and 1,500 words. Yet so far in my judging process, I’ve come across a good handful of entries that are no more than 500 words. Some are even shorter than that.

And it’s interesting how I, as a reader (if not a judge), feel when I reach the end of these shorter entries. Many have been engaging, yet I feel they’ve finished abruptly. It’s left me asking more questions about what they’ve written. (And I’ve found I’m asking a lot more questions than I feel the piece has answered.) I want to know more. A lot more.

So far (and I am still going through the entries in my initial first sift) I’ve not come across a ‘short’ entry that I feel has worked well. I’ve not read a piece that I felt was so well-written that to expand upon it would destroy its effect.

These are entries are less than 50%, or even 33%, of the permitted maximum word count. It’s as if the writers ran out of things to say.

I’m not suggesting that if a competition has a maximum word count of 1500 words, and your entry is 1200 words, that you should add another 200-300 words to make the most of your quota (or entry fee!). Indeed, 1200 words might be all you need to make the point that you’re trying to make.

But if you’ve got a 1500-word limit to play with, and your text is barely 500 words, then perhaps you should be asking yourself whether this is the right competition for this particular entry? (Indeed, I have wondered whether these shorter submissions are other competition failures.)

Bear in mind that a judge will be aware of the entry criteria. If the maximum word count is 450 words, and your entry is 400 words, the judge will appreciate that your submission has been tackled in a way to deal with that tight word count restriction. Taking that into consideration, the entry may have immense merit. But change the criteria and the merit of that entry changes too.

And don’t forget, a much shorter entry is competing with those other longer entries that still meet the competition’s criteria. It’s a competition. It’s not just about your entry – it’s about your entry compared with those submitted by other writers.

Never pad an entry to make it meet a maximum word count. But stop and think about your entry if it is much shorter than the permitted maximum word count. Would extending it destroy its point and idea? Or would it enable you to develop the idea further? Does your short entry pack the punch it needs to knock out the other longer entries?

Is this really the right competition for your work? Or have you simply run out of things to say?

Good luck.

4 Comments

  1. Lynne Hackles

    May 22, 2017 at 1:57 PM

    Sounds like you#re getting a lot of failed Flash Fiction comp entries.

  2. But I hope 50 words below or above the maximum word count is in order?

What are your thoughts?

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