Reading a handbook like "Write Ways To Win Writing Contests" is obviously the best way to ensure contest success, particularly if you want to be aware of ALL the pitfalls and how to avoid them. But there are three basic "unwritten rules" which trip up most contestants.
1. Don’t believe that words like “open theme” or “subject matter is contestant’s choice” mean what they say. Say you’ve written an excellent story, poem or essay about gold mining in Alaska in 1893. Before sending off that hopefully winning entry find out if that particular contest has ever awarded a prize to an entry about mining in any shape or form. Say uranium mining, coal mining, as well as goldmining. Any type of mining or related activity like timber-cutting, prospecting, etc. All legitimate contests publish winning entries online or in printed anthologies. Admittedly, it is a bit of a nuisance looking this up, and it might even be necessary to buy the anthology. But it pays off! If you purchased Watching Time, for example, you would find a story entitled "Out of Darkness" in which the very first line, "My father quit the mines the day they buried the McDowell twins", betrays the subject matter. Therefore, you can send your entry with confidence to the Tom Howard Short Story Contest, knowing that it will be not be rejected simply because of its theme.
2. Make your first lines count. The above quote provides an excellent example of a powerful first line. Here is the opening to "Naxos Nights" by Laurie Gough (also included in Watching Time): "No single incident in my life has been so strange, so hard to grasp, so totally lacking in feasible explanation. I came to Naxos by mistake, but maybe there are no mistakes."
3. Regard your first thoughts regarding the title of your work as a prelim. It’s worth while to devote a fair amount of time to composing an eye-catching, yet relevant title. Remember, the title and your opening lines are the first things the judge will see. You need to arouse his interest right from the start. Here are some well-chosen titles from Watching Time: Chocolate Covered Crickets, Salesman of the Decade, Sitting at the Gate of the Temple, The Guernsey Doll, The Dead Zone, Fan-Fan, Geraldine Fitzgerald & St Patrick’s Day, My Mother’s Table, Phantom Feelings, Homesteaders, Cell Block, The Meal.