Recently, I encountered the following short paragraph that professed itself to be rules for a contest. The gist of the paragraph remains intact but I have altered details to protect the contest-rule-drafting challenged.

{Contest Sponsor} invites you to enter its 2017 writing contest. Entry Deadline: June 15, 2017. Word Limit: 500 words. Rules: You can submit a work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. Your entry must include all the following: the name of a flower, a reference to a 1930’s motion picture, a form of physical activity, and perseverance. The winner will receive {the contest prize}.

What’s Wrong with These Contest Rules? Quite a bit as these rules reflect many deficiencies. I discuss four significant deficiencies in this blog post:

Entry Requirements Are Incomplete. A writing contest should specify requirements for language, length, and formatting (e.g., typed, double-spaced, file format for online submissions, etc.). While these rules place the word limit at 500, there is no clear indication that the sponsor would reject my essay composed in Egyptian hieroglyphics and chiseled onto a stone tablet.

No Information about Judges. A sponsor does not necessarily need to identify the judges by name – and, in some cases, the better procedure is not to identify the specific judges in the rules. Nevertheless, a contest sponsor should at a minimum describe the pool from which judges come and provide details illustrating that the selected judges are qualified. For example, The New Yorker's weekly cartoon caption contest identifies its judges as members of the editorial staff of The New Yorker. Few would argue that members of that group are not qualified to select the cartoon caption contest winner – even though the contest rules do not specifically identify any judge by name.

Lack of Specific Judging Criteria. This example does not even take the partial – yet inadequate step – of saying the prize will be awarded to the best essay. I refer to a “best essay” award as inadequate – because what exactly does it mean to be the best. To some extent, most judging criteria for a writing contest will be subjective. Nevertheless, the sponsor places itself in a much better position to defend itself from participant-dissatisfaction and regulatory inquiries by explicitly itemizing judging criteria in its rules. Judging criteria for a writing contest might include originality, adherence to submission guidelines, writing skill, and overall appeal.

In a worst-case scenario, failing to establish objective criteria for awarding a contest prize can inadvertently alter a legal skill-based contest into an illegal lottery. Mistakenly offering an illegal lottery or gambling game is one of the 10 Common Legal Mistakes for Contests and Sweepstakes Promotions.

Full Rules Are Non-Existent or Gated. If this paragraph is meant to be an abbreviated version of the full rules, the paragraph should indicate where the full rules can be found. If there are more complete rules, the sponsor has hidden them behind a social networking gate. People interested in participating in this particular writing contest need to register at the sponsor’s online contest platform in order to obtain additional information about the promotion.

This is similar to like-gating. Through like-gating, companies offer exclusive information, products, and promotion-participating opportunities only to those people who like or otherwise connect to the company’s social media account. While I am not aware of any court decision ruling that like-gating is illegal, it is not a best practice when offering promotions and has been discouraged by self-regulatory organizations within the advertising industry such as the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division.