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Show me the funny: Style Invitational rules and guidelines

Everything you need to know about entering The Washington Post’s weekly humor/wordplay contest

(Adapted from one of the honorable-mention prize magnets created by Bob Staake for The Washington Post)

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” — it’s all me) 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.

Submit entries online through the link included in the online version or by typing in the short URL (Web address) included in the print version. You should receive an auto-reply by email as a confirmation. If you run into some technical problem, you may email me your entry at (put the contest number in your subject line), but I’m optimistic that you won’t need to. The deadline is midnight (in whichever time zone you’re in) on the date stated in the contest directions, usually two Mondays after the contest is announced, but occasionally on a Tuesday if Monday is a holiday. (If you have an emergency and you can’t make the deadline, go ahead and send your entry the next day; I won’t throw it out.)

You may submit up to 25 entries to a contest — any exceptions will be noted — and they may be in a single submission. (You may send more than one submission, but you’re still limited to a total of 25 entries.) Please don’t format your entries with tabs, tables, columns, etc., as they might go all kerflooey on the receiving end; we’re not going to run them that way anyway. Don’t even number them. For the rare contest that invites you to submit a photo or other graphic, you’ll be able to do that as well. There will also be a field where you may add comments, complain about the lousy judging, suck up to the Empress, arrange for bribes, etc.

Please put some space between your individual entries; it’s very hard to read a long single-spaced list. Don’t add space between the lines of a single poem, however.

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.

The online submission form will prompt you for several things; the entry won’t go through unless you fill these in:

Your real name (i.e., the name you go by in daily life; nicknames are fine, but NO PSEUDONYMS, and we won’t withhold a name)

Your postal address — don’t you want me to mail you a prize?

A usable phone number. (I hate making phone calls, so this is just in case of emergency.)

Your email address.

You may suggest “revised titles” — that’s the alternative headline for next week’s results — and/or honorable-mention subheads. Since you’ll no longer be able to indicate it on an email subject line, please include, somewhere in the body of the submission, the word “titles.” I’ll search on that word to find those entries. That’s fine for both the alternative headines and HM subheads. (You can still designate which is which; just make sure I’ll see them by searching on “title.” I’m just trying to avoid scrolling through all the entries for these two little semi-separate contests.

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 email 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 set of Invitational results 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’m not in a position to check systematically the provenance of everyone’s entry. In large part, I am relying on the entrants’ honor. It’s not The Steal Invitational.

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. (Posting your own work on the Style Invitational Devotees page on Facebook won’t disqualify you.) 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 Clowning Achievement 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 Clowning Achievement, a little trophy featuring a sad-looking clown head. cannon replica that is really a pencil sharpener. With a base handcrafted by Loser Larry Gray, and assembled by the Empress’s loyal husband, the Royal Consort. $5 in materials, but of course priceless.

Loser Mug: $4.

Grossery Bag: $4.

Loser Magnets: 25 cents.

FirStink: 90 cents.

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

The Empress almost always sends out the prizes within a week after they’re rewarded — the top prizes even faster. If you’re a runner-up, email her posthaste to say whether you’d like the mug or the bag; she’d rather not have to come asking.

The legal fine print

All entries become the property of The Washington Post. This means that The Post could use your entry again in the Invitational or for another purpose. You are also free to use your entry yourself after the contest results appear; if you get ink, please include a line that it was published in The Style Invitational (if it’s online, preferably with a link to; if you don’t get ink, you don’t have to mention the Invitational at all. 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 about a contest, first reread the week’s instructions, and also please look at my further discussion on The Style Conversational (, the online column I publish each week along with the Invite itself. Even better is to join the Facebook group Style Invitational Devotees, which boasts more than 2,000 members. I take questions there every day of the week, and the Losers take part in lots of verbal sparring (but always civil and good-humored) and just general clever joking around.

If it’s a more pressing question, or a private matter, feel free to email me at, an address I look at several times a day.

If you have a contest suggestion or want to donate a prize, email me at the same address and put something to that effect in the subject line.

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 Devotees page. 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 this group.

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 is that another entry made me laugh more than yours did. Sometimes contestants will ask me for a critique of their entries. I’ll 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 at and mailing out a newsletter, Depravda. And then came the Losers’ own website, a schedule of monthly brunches; an annual out-of-town trip; a winter holiday party, plus an annual awards lunch — the Flushies; a by-membership email group, Losernet; and most recently, the Style Invitational Devotees page on Facebook.

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 (or even just as a fan) 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 comments in my weekly Style Conversational column to hear about upcoming events. Come on out and Meet the Parentheses.

When will I know if I get ink?

The easiest way to search for the Invite online regularly is to bookmark, where you can find an index to dozens of past columns, along with the current one. But you also want to get my weekly email notification, which I send out myself every Thursday afternoon, immediately after I post the Invitational and Conversational online. Sign up at The newsletter will say “Style Invitational” in the subject line, so you can search on it.

Each week’s contest is usually posted online around noon Eastern time on Thursdays; then it appears in print over the weekend in Sunday’s Arts & Style section, near the back (subscribers get that section on Saturday). Late the same Thursday afternoon, I also comment on the new and old contests in a supplementary online column, The Style Conversational. If you’re entering the contest, I strongly suggest that you take a look at the Convo, since I’ll sometimes explain in more detail what I’m looking for, and sometimes link to previous similar contests.

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

— Pat Myers, The Empress of the Style Invitational