Introduction: How to Win an Instructables Contest
There are many great explanations on how to write an instructable. In fact, before reading my guide, I suggest you take a look at jessyratfink's class on "How to Write an Instructable" and "The Featuring Guidelines" by Canida. Even though Canida's list is already 10 years old, the points are still valid and I will repeat them in this instructable.
So you might ask yourself, why am I writing this instructable, even though there is already so much knowledge out there. The main reason is that I still constantly get asked how to win and I figured the 1000th contest would be a great opportunity to write this instructable and touch on points nobody has before.
Please note that I am not an instructables staff member and have never been one, therefore all the hints I am giving are based on my personal experience.
Step 1: Expectations
I think the most important point I can make regarding this whole topic is that please don't just make an instructable to win a contest! Publish something you are passionate about. Something that you have made for the sake of making. Even better publish something that you have made for someone in mind as a gift. This way even should you not win you can still be proud of the thing you made and the process of making it. I am convinced that this also translates into the instructable. If you are passionate about something, it is way easier to write about it and present it to others. I always give a short motivation on why I created something in the intro step, this way you can hopefully win people's attention and get them to share your passion. In fact, it is one of the points in the featuring guideline:
- The introduction should state what the project is, and the reason or motivation behind it.
Furthermore please do not expect to become rich winning instructable contests. See this as a nice way to fund your passion. When I am listing all my winnings it might seem like I could quit my job, but remember I have been doing this for eleven years. Yes, have won for example three 3D printers, two MacBooks, four tablets, a KitchenAid, a 50" Smart TV, a DSLR, a drone, a high torque mill, and many, many vouchers, but I have also spend a lot of money on my creations. Furthermore, by now I have invested quite a lot of money into helping me make better instructables, like a better camera, lenses, lighting, and so on. Depending on where you live you may also have to declare your winnings as income for your taxes.
So like I said in the beginning, please make something you are passionate about and see winning a contest as a bonus. Also please don't be discouraged should you not win. Keep on entering contests and I am sure you will have success. Even if your instructable doesn't tick all the boxes I am mentioning here, still enter it. Not entering it means you have no chance of winning.
Step 2: Learning From Others
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it's the sincerest form of learning.”
― George Bernard Shaw
I guess this quote is very valid when it comes to creating projects and writing instructables. In order to help you, I suggest taking a look at the most successful authors on this site.
In the past 1,000 contests, more than 17,300 prizes were handed out to more than 7,850 individual winners. The image below shows the number of people who won a certain number of contests. 7468 people managed to win between one and five contests, 251 people have won between 6 and 10 contests, and so on.
As you can see only six members managed to win in more than 50 contests. The person who won the most contests in the past 1000 contests is Doodlecraft. With an insane number of 67 wins.
Contest wins *
|Icon||Name||Number of instructables *|
*the data was taken in the end of October 2020
Before it was possible to win in a maximum of three contests with one instructable. Only two instructables ever managed to take home the grand prize three times. They are:
by jaguar k
I suggest you take a look at the authors as well as the successful instructables. By this, I, of course, don't mean to copy what was done (unless it is a remix contest), but to take a look at the type of projects and how they are presented. It is also always worth to take a look at the past winners here and the contest archive here. Especially if a contest was hosted before.
Instructables staff members are not allowed to win in instructables contests. Therefore former and current staff members have fewer contest wins. I still suggest looking at their profiles since they are maker superstars and would certainly win, if they were allowed to. Examples are jessyratfink, mikeasaurus, seamster, Penelopy Bulnick and randofo.
I have certainly forgotten people that deserve a shout-out. please post their names in the comments.
Step 3: Picking the Right Project
To me, picking the right project to enter in a contest is the most important part. You can have the best-written instructable with perfect pictures and follow all the suggestions I give you in this instructable, but still not end up taking the grand prize, because your project is not well chosen.
There could be different reasons for that. For example, your project doesn't perfectly fit the theme of a contest or it has been done many times before and you are not adding anything really new to it. Another thing I would suggest you stay clear of is controversial topics like dangerous things or politics. No matter how well done your project is, if a judge doesn't share your beliefs, they might give you a low score. Please take a look at this instructable, should you be interested in how the judging works. In order to get featured you need:
- Content that is highly reproducible and has that “wow, awesome!” factor
You might be confused about why I keep quoting the featuring checklist. Nearly every contest winner got featured. This, of course, doesn't mean that if you get featured you will for sure win a prize, but the other way around, you can be pretty sure that if your project isn't featured you are not going to win.
Please don't worry if your project doesn't get featured right away, sometimes it might take a while. There are real human beings featuring the instructables and they need to sleep from time to time. Also, don't worry if your project doesn't get featured on the front page right away. Sometimes the admins wait a bit to send an instructable there because they may have sent a few others there at the same time and they want to give everyone a chance to be seen.
Defining the "wow, awesome!" factor is difficult and differs from person to person. That's why I suggest writing about something you are passionate about.
In the contest rules it states (btw. it is always useful to take a look at the contest rules):
- [...] will be judged on the basis of the following criteria (the "Criteria"): clarity, ingenuity, creativity, quality of presentation, and execution of the Instructable.
So keep that in mind while picking a project and writing the instructable.
Please take a look at the list of upcoming contests, if you have a perfect idea, but notice that your instructable doesn't fit into any of the current contests. There are also some contests that come back every year, so sometimes it may be a good idea to wait before publishing something.
Step 4: Taking Great Pictures
Every time someone asks me what advice I could give other makers, I tell them to take as many pictures as possible. To me after picking the project, taking pictures is the second most important factor in winning.
Only about 10% of the pictures I take end up in the instructable (I take an average of about 160 pictures and use about 16). I especially take a long time to get a nice title image.
The featuring checklist states:
- All photos should be original, bright, clear, and in-focus.
- Projects should be broken into enough steps to be easy to follow, with sufficient photos and explanatory text to allow the reader to understand the process.
In fact, having great photos (especially a nice title shot) can elevate your project quite a lot. I remember a few years back there was a "Make it Fly" contest and one member complained because he felt like his project got overlooked, while another project was wrongfully successful. The project that was successful was a simple paper tube, while the project by the member who complained was a well thought out paper plane. At first glance, you would probably say that this seems unfair, but one of these projects had a nice and appealing title shot as well as nice pictures through the ible, while the other one got presented on a dimly lit cutting mat and a few of the pictures were blurry. I let you guess which one is which. While the paper tube didn't end up winning the grand prize, it won in three contests (at that time it was still possible to win a maximum of three contests with one ible). The well thought out paper plane didn't win anything. So you can see that even if you have a great idea, it is still important to present it in the right way with nice-looking and clear pictures. Btw. I used to just place my final product onto a cutting mat to take the picture, but going through my ibles, you can see that I have changed that approach. By now I try to add either an interesting (but not too distracting) background to it or use a single color background to help the viewer focus on the object. If I would be photographing a paper plane I would probably take it outside. Have it perfectly in focus and use a bokeh effect on the background.
Obviously, it's a balance of everything, but a simple ible with excellent pictures will probably do better than a not well-documented complex project.
Btw. using a clickbait title image and title may help you in getting views (though your ible may not get featured), but since real people are looking through your ible while choosing the finalists and winners, you will not do well in contests.
Another very important point is to make sure that all the pictures you use are yours. I know that sometimes it is impossible to take a picture of something (like in my case the image of the original LEGO duck). In that case, make sure that you are allowed to use the pictures you find online in your ible and that they are not in any way restricted. Otherwise, just link to them in your ible or make a drawing as I have here. Just please don't leave a step without any pictures.
Step 5: What Equipment to Use
I know that taking good pictures is hard because setting up a shot takes time and more often than not you need the right equipment. There are many factors that need to be considered when taking a good photo. If you take a look around instructables you will find a lot of good explanations of what is important, here is a very helpful list and here is a free great class.
There is no need for me to repeat all that, but I would like to show you the equipment I am using.
I have always had DSLR cameras while creating my instructables. I started out with a Canon 600D than bought a Canon 70D and when that one broke I bought a Canon 80D (e.g. on amazon.com*). But don't worry if you can't afford a DSLR camera, Jessy wrote an excellent guide on how to use your phone to take great pictures.
Another important thing to consider when owning a DSLR camera is the lens. I started out with the 18-55 mm bundle lens and later bought this* Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM lens for my title images, which turned out to be a great investment. Now I am mainly using this* ridiculously expensive Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Btw. I have always bought all my camera equipment used so check to see if can manage to get them at a great price.
Just as important as your lens is the lighting. I started out with only making things during the day and taking pictures in sunlight but quickly realized that that was not always an option, so I got this softbox lighting kit, which I can highly recommend. I always use them since they not only allow me to take better pictures but also have a great light during making things. By now I have two of these* GODOX SL-60W lamps and am extremely happy with them. Though with the diffuser they are rather big and take up a lot of space.
If you have the money I suggest you also invest in a tripod since it will make your life a whole lot easier. I am using this* Manfrotto variable friction arm and this* tripod. While they are great, there are definitely cheaper options available.
A remote for your camera and setting up a timer is also very helpful, this way you can have your hands free and won't have to touch your camera especially when your hands are dirty. Using a remote also helps to eliminate shaking and therefore blurriness in the pictures.
I hope I could give you an idea of what to use. You don't need to have the best equipment, but it will certainly make your life easier. The space I work at is quite limited, once I have set up all my equipment I can hardly move around, but I think it is worth the afford.
Another tip I can give you is to always shoot in raw and edit the pictures later. Instead of worrying to get the perfect cropped shot during the making of something I nearly always take a wider shot and crop my pictures later. Please, also make sure no unnecessary things are in your shot and focus on what's important. I also often take HDR photos. Here is an instructable that explains to you how to do it. I do all my editing in Photoshop, which is about 12 € a month. A great free alternative is Gimp.
If you are still unsure how your picture should look like, take a look at past winners and see how they took their pictures, but remember there's more than one way to skin a cat.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Btw. adding affiliate links is a great way to make a bit of money even if your instructable doesn't win in a contest.
Step 6: Adding a Video
Adding a video is a bonus. It is of course not necessary, but it will help to better show off your project. It may also drive viewers from youtube to your project. Or, if your main focus is making videos it may drive traffic from instructables to your video.
I also add gifs to my steps from time to time, because I think they grab people's attention. Just make sure that they are not too big otherwise they are not going to load properly.
I don't have any special equipment to film my videos. I use the same camera I take my photos with. Since I personally prefer shorter videos, I usually only quickly show the final project (I also don't like standing in front of a camera).
So if you have the time, I suggest taking a quick video of your final project.
Step 7: Writing the Text
In terms of writing a great text, I am definitely not the person to turn to. I make sure that I thoroughly explain what I have done, but I spend way more time taking and editing the pictures than on writing the texts (this is certainly the most text I have ever written). If you look at my Instructables, you might notice that very often I write something similar to "as shown in the picture ..." instead of writing a lengthy text. Considering the number of my contests wins I don't think it has ever given me any problems. The featuring checklist states:
- Projects should be complete and contain all the information needed so others could reasonably duplicate the project (if the reader were to have the necessary skills and access to similar tools and materials.) Lists should be included of parts/materials/ingredients/tools used, with links to sources as needed, as well as links to references. **
- The title fits and explains the project.
- For the instructable itself; good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are needed for a Contest-Winning Instructable.
I am not a native speaker and therefore I usually let someone proofread my texts or use addons like "Grammarly" to minimize any errors.
Another thing you might want to consider is to learn some basic HTML. This way you are able to add small images to the text to make it more interesting or for example, add tables (like I have done in step 3). Please be warned that some HTML code may not work due to the design of the site. Also, be mindful of people reading via mobile phone (I am not always great at that).
I could give you the average amount of words, steps, and pictures grand price winners used in the past. But I don't think there is much value in that. The length of an instructable depends a lot on the complexity of the project. Make sure that everything is thoroughly shown and explained and you should be good to go.
** As you can see in step 5 I quite often use Amazon Associate links in my material list. To me, this is a win-win situation. The reader is quickly going to find the thing they are looking for and should they buy them and or other things, I get a percentage of the purchase. This is a great way to finance your projects, even should you not win anything.
Step 8: When to Publish
I often read that you should add your project to a contest as soon as possible, since this way it is able to collect more views and therefore votes. It may suprise you, but the votes have actually no effect on the choice of finalists. In reality, finalists are chosen by a round of in-house judging by the site admins that is done according to the same criteria used in the judging round later on.
I usually post right before the contest closes (usually a day before). Not because of a certain strategy, but because I tend to work on the instructable up to the last minute. I don't think I have ever spend less than eight hours on an instructable. It takes me a long time to go through all my pictures, pick the ones I like, edit them, and to write the text.
Remember that most of the instructable staff lives in San Francisco, while they tend to feature during the weekend, most features are definitely happening during the working hours and so does the acceptance in a contest. So if you are impatient, Sunday night may not be the best time to publish anything.
But like I said I don't really have a strategy when it comes to the time I publish my instructables.
Picking the right contest to enter is also very important. The number and quality of entries differs a lot. So if you have a choice between two or more contests, take a look at your competition and possible prizes and pick the contest you feel your instructable would do better in. It may happen that a lot of great entries are being posted at the last minute, but I guess this is a risk you will have to live with.
Also please don't publish an unfinished instructable. Since most of the time staff members decide about featuring right after an instructables is published, they won't see the changes you make later on.
Step 9: What Now?
Once they have published their Instructable, most people probably sit back and relax. But this is the worst time to hide under a rock. Now is the time to get active and tell people what you have made and share your instructable as much as possible. Your goal should be to manage to get into the newsletter since it will help you to get a lot of views.
Don't just rely on the following feature on instructables, since quite often it is not working. Share your project on social media and drive as many people to it as possible. While getting many views is not the only deciding factor on which ibles end up in the newsletter (a staff member makes this decision), it is certainly useful and helps your project from being overlooked.
People with a large social media presence may have an advantage considering this point, but I for example don't have a big following. I usually post my ibles in forums or Facebook groups. If you do the same please try not to be annoying, interact with people, don't just post your project, and leave. I also used to write a lot of e-mails to websites that have published my instructables before, to tell them that I have a new project.
This of course only helps you if your project is up to the part. While getting many views helps your project to be seen, it doesn't mean you will win anything. The final judging is done by a bunch of people who actually read what you've written.
All that is left to do is to wait and see. I wish you all the best and hope you will be doing well in the upcoming contests and if you don't please don't be discouraged, the next contest is right around the corner.
Participated in the