Style Invitational rules and guidelines

By Pat Myers
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 5:22 PM

The Style Invitational is a humor/wordplay contest through which we seek to bring a variety of clever, timely, irreverent humor every week to the readers of The Washington Post. While our ultimate goal is to get you to write great stuff for us for less than peanuts, we (a.k.a. "I") do aim to judge the contest as fairly and carefully as we reasonably can.

Here's a list of rules and guidelines on how to enter, and some explanation of how we do things.

How to enter

First, read over the week's contest directions carefully - it's sad to see a list of 25 entries of words that didn't begin with a letter between B and G, or whatever the restrictions were in that week's contest.

Submissions are by e-mail to (If you really cannot use e-mail, you may fax them to 202-334-4312, but e-mail is way, way more convenient for us.)

You may submit multiple entries to a contest - usually, there is no limit on the number - and they may be in a single e-mail. Please don't use any special formatting on the entries - columns, charts, pretty shapes and colors, etc.; these invariably end up all messed up on our end. Just plain old text. And while it's fine to compose your entries on Word or another word-processing program and copy them in, please do not put your entries in an attachment - put them right into the body of your e-mail. Sometimes I'll print out all the entries en masse, and an attachment won't print. (There are exceptions for a few contests involving photos or graphics.)

Please put some space between your individual entries; it's very hard to read a long single-spaced list. On Word, you can set the paragraphs (under Format/Paragraphing) for double-spacing or even 1.5 lines.

We strongly prefer not to credit two or more people for a single entry. On rare contests that are more collaborative (e.g., one person would think up the joke; the other would make a graphic), we'll make an exception.

Be sure to include at the top or bottom of your entry:

Your real name (NO PSEUDONYMS, and we won't withhold a name)

Your postal address

A usable phone number

An e-mail address where we may contact you, if it's a different address from the one on your e-mail itself.

Be sure to include the correct week number in the subject line of the e-mail: I often sort the e-mails into folders just by looking at the subject lines. If you write "Week 902" on your entry for Week 901, I probably won't see it until a week too late.

You may suggest revised titles - that's the alternate headline for next week's results, published at the end of the column - and honorable-mention subheads in the same e-mail as your entries or as a separate e-mail; doesn't matter to us. Don't just put them in the subject line of your e-mail, as we used to suggest under an earlier judging system.

The judging

Every entry is personally read and ruminated on (ewwww!) every week by the Empress herself - Pat Myers, who has been in charge of the Invitational since December 2003. While she will sometimes ask others' opinions of various entries, she always reads them first, and it's her decision which entries are published. You don't agree with the judging, hers is the name you get to curse.

But you don't get to accuse the Empress of playing favorites. Whenever possible, she judges the entries without seeing the names of the entrants. The reason that some people's names appear repeatedly and yours does not is merely that those other people are better at this contest than you are, and probably put a lot more time and effort into it. Be persistent - if you read the results regularly, you'll get a feel for the type of entries I tend to choose.

This contest is in no way a race: I don't look at any of the entries until after the contest deadline. If you want to hold on to your entries all week and polish them, or add to them, and send them on that final Monday night, that's perfectly fine with me. (If there is an emergency and you cannot file your entry by that evening, I can take it the next day. Just don't make a habit of it.)

Entries may be - and often are - edited for space, taste, and just better wording of the joke. If I think you'd have reason to be upset that the revised joke was credited to you, I'll e-mail you and run my idea by you, or ask for your own revision. Unfortunately, time doesn't permit full consultations about every editing tweak.

Your joke has to be original - it can't be the funniest joke you ever heard or read; it has to be the funniest joke you ever thought of. It happens all the time, of course, that a certain joke or wordplay occurs to more than one person. This is why almost every week of the Invitational includes an entry sent independently by two people. If you're wondering if your idea is already a pretty common one, Google it.

It's not the object of the contest to see if you can sneak unoriginal work past the Empress. I am not in a position to check systematically the provenance of everyone's entry. In large part, I am relying on the entrants' honor.

Even when it's your own work, we don't want to publish it if it's already been published elsewhere. If you're not sure whether some obscure Web site counts, send me the link and I'll make a ruling. Even though, as the fine print below specifies, entries officially "become the property of The Washington Post," you are free to use your non-inking entries where you like, after the contest results are printed, and you can even use your inking entries provided that you explain that they were Washington Post Style Invitational winners (links to the Invitational are always nice to include as well).

When two or more people send pretty much the same idea and their wording is equally good, either (1) I'll use one person's wording and credit both people, or (2) I'll use elements of both entries and credit both people. When people send in the same idea but one person says it significantly better, that person gets the sole ink. If several entries are similar and all pretty much the same quality, I just toss them all or, very rarely, print the entry and credit no specific person.

The prizes

If your contest entry wins, is a runner-up or is an honorable mention, you get a prize along with the inestimable glory. You get no more than one prize per week, no matter how much ink you get (exception: If you are a First Offender and you win the Inker or are a runner-up, you'll get both the prize and the FirStink air "freshener").

All of our prizes are basically only of symbolic, nominal value. But for those who are really good about itemizing every last thing on the disclosure form:

The Inker, which is half of a pair of cheap "Thinker"-reproduction bookends with a custom-made head-bag template that you have to cut out and glue yourself: $6.

Loser T-Shirt: $7.

Loser Mug: $6.

Loser Magnets: 25 cents.

FirStink: 80 cents.

Second-place gag prize: Depends on the prize, duh; do a little research.

The Empress has been fabulously good at sending the prizes out quickly - usually the weekend they're awarded. If you're a runner-up, e-mail her posthaste to say whether you'd like the mug or the shirt.

The legal fine print

All entries become the property of The Washington Post. No purchase required for entry. Employees of The Washington Post, and their immediate relatives, are not eligible for prizes.

Want to ask a question of/chat with/complain to/suck up to the Empress?

If you have a question whose answer might interest other contestants as well, post it on the contest's week's thread on the Style Conversational (, the Invite's own online discussion group. I check for questions every day or two. You have to register (free) but you may post anonymously.

If you have a contest suggestion or want to donate a prize, e-mail and put something to that effect in the subject line.

If it's a more pressing question, or a private matter, e-mail me at, an address I check several times a day.

If you don't understand a certain entry - it's okay, almost no one (except me) understands every single one every week - feel free either to contact me or to post your question on the Conversational. You will not be mocked either way; despite their published puerility and snarkiness, the Losers are actually an exceedingly civil and supportive group. The nasty discourse that appears on some other comment sites is entirely absent from the Style Conversational.

What I don't like to get into is debating my picks in a certain contest. Humor is subjective; often what it comes down to was that another entry made me laugh more than yours did. Sometimes contestants will ask me for a critique of their entries. I can do that if I have the time - especially with highly structured entries such as limericks - but I'm not going to get into an argument with you. Life is just too short.

There's a name for people like you - and a whole social community

Right from the earliest weeks of the Style Invitational back in 1993, some of the regular contestants managed to find one another and go out for brunch together. Before long, the group now known as the Losers started keeping regular statistics (which are kept fully online to this day) and mailing out a newsletter, Depravda. And then came the Losers' own Web site,; a schedule of monthly brunches; an annual out-of-town trip; a winter holiday party, plus an annual awards lunch - the Flushies - every spring; and a by-membership e-mail group on Yahoo, Losernet.

Of course, entering the Invite doesn't obligate you to get to know the other Losers, but many of them have indeed become close friends, and as an entrant you're more than welcome to join in. The Empress usually attends several brunches a year, and will make a special effort to come out and meet some new Losers. And she'll always crash the holiday party and the Flushies. Read my opening comments on the weekly Style Conversational to hear about upcoming events. Come on out and Meet the Parentheses.

When will I know if I get ink?

The easiest way to find the Invite online regularly is to bookmark, where you can find an index to dozens of past columns, along with the current one.

Each week's contest is usually posted the Friday afternoon (about 3 to 3:30 p.m. Eastern time) preceding the Sunday of the date of the contest. Shortly after the Invite is posted online, I also post my comments on the new and old contests - it's sort of a weekly newsletter - on the Style Conversational. If you're entering the contest, I strongly suggest that you take a look at my comments, since I will sometimes explain in more detail what I'm looking for, and sometimes link to previous similar contests. And I also post an announcement on Facebook that will appear on the news feeds of anyone signed up for the group Washington Post Style. (Or you can become my personal Facebook "friend"; search for Pat Myers The Washington Post.)

The results appear four weeks after the contest is announced. So don't hold your breath, Loser.

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