For what it's worth, for my first 3 articles I put in a lot of effort to read previous competition articles and try to understand what they were looking for, I ended up getting 7th, 7th, and 2nd in those first 3. They didn't know who I was before that, I was a new account trying to get started. I can at least attest that there wasn't any kind of shady underhanded dealings going on. If it was an inner circle kind of situation I don't know why they would randomly scoop me up and not ever mention it to me.
After those first 3, the next 2 articles I submitted were well written, but you could tell I didn't put the same time/effort into them because my life was just too busy at the time. I ended up in the 1 STEEM bonus category and did not rank on those two. Since then, I've been able to put a significant amount of time/effort into most of my posts and I've found my ranking tends to correlate with my time/effort/understanding of each individual competition.
As someone who has had some success lately, I can at least confirm that there has been no communication or collusion between contest promoters and those who often win. If it's helpful, I can outline how I go about writing so you can evaluate if there's any useful part of my process you can implement yourself. I always read the @originalworks post carefully, then I review the ICO website clicking on every tab/link they have. I usually end up going through all the pages several times. Then, I read the entire whitepaper (and any other papers they have). Then, I reread any parts of the whitepaper that I think would make for good contest content. Then, I check out all the social avenues the ICO participates in to see what they're saying to the public (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as well as their GitHub if it's available to see what kind of requests are being processed if available. Only after I feel like I understand the project well do I begin writing my paper. I often find myself navigating to those sources as I write to double-check things as well. Here's another tricky part though, when I write my goal is for it to be easy enough to read that someone who has never heard of the project can understand it. So, although I've gone quite in depth to understand the ICO I assume the reader knows nothing about it.
I think this is a successful strategy because by having an understanding of the project and it's inner workings, you appeal to the article reviewers at the ICO and they respect your understanding of their work. They also understand that from a purely technical perspective, they could write a more comprehensive article than you could, so your ability to convert that into something for any prospective investor to understand is what creates that extra value. It ends up being a lot of research and work with a resulting article that doesn't read like it's particularly complicated, basically your effort only really shows to people who know the ICO and want it to be appealing to the masses and understand the balance between the technical and the marketable.
If you can accomplish all of that you still need to give it that extra push to separate yourself from the rest though, many people technically meet this criteria every week. So, that's where the parts that are a bit more difficult to articulate in a reply come in. That's where things like originality and creativity come in. If you have real world knowledge of something that relates to the ICO that you can spin into your post that helps! If you have a creative way to present it, that helps too! If you have complimentary skills outside of writing maybe incorporate something extra like a short video or animation that you produce, that helps! Outside of that, after every contest I evaluate what others did differently than what I did to try and determine what tweaks will improve my odds next time around. It's the extra things that can help push you into the top IMO. Hopefully something in here is helpful, I do with you the best!
P.S. When I started writing these I was a little intimidated by the users that seemed to be in the top week after week and wondered if I'd have a shot. I found a couple things about the competition. First, I found out that they were putting in more work than you might think at first (probably for the same reasons I just wrote above) and secondly, they all were very welcoming of new competition and didn't feel entitled to the top. It's really a great community. I think people like @outerground and @ecoinstant can vouch for this (if they happen to notice this post). When I started they were dominant, I believe they've both either stopped or are on hold on these competitions now (outerground just stopped last week I think) but they would always encourage others and recognize those who rose up.