Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

I promised a post for marketing, PR, corporate communications, and advertising pros interested in entering their work for awards. While that list corresponds to a broad swath of industries, award categories and potentially award-worthy programs, there is one thing they all have in common: the entry form.

The focus here is on creating a strong entry.

Out of necessity, this discussion is going to be on the long-ish side, so I’m dividing it into two blog posts: this first one covers Preparation and The Hard Truth, while the final one will offer tips on Writing Your Entry. For those truly serious about crafting a competitive entry, I recommend reading each section, though you may want to peruse the first post to see where you net out before tackling the actual entry-writing advice.

Preparation

I mentioned in my previous post that, these days, judges are looking for quantitative results. There’s only one sure thing with today’s award programs: if you don’t have the data to demonstrate results, no matter how excellent your creative or campaign, you will not win.

Set Aside Enough Time for Your Entry
You’ve worked hard all year. You pulled all-nighters strategizing the best way to connect with target audiences. You flew cross-country in a blizzard to do print check on the annual report. You gave up weekends seeing to every detail of a spectacular launch or event. You felt like you’d developed an alternate personality after tweeting non-stop for months in your client’s Twitter style.

To paraphrase that lottery tagline: You can’t win if you don’t enter. It’s a sad truth that many, many worthy programs go unrewarded because the people who shepherded them through to successful conclusions moved on to new work and were too busy to submit an award entry.

Your work deserves the chance to compete. You and your team deserve it. Your clients deserve it – and an award has the potential to boost your reputation and your client’s.

Set aside the time you’ll need to complete the advance work – client permission to enter, legal approval regarding any proprietary information (if that’s relevant), gathering research and result metrics – and the time required to write a competitive entry. (It once took me 27 hours just to gather the accurate statistics and backing documentation needed to accompany an entry – and that wasn’t the half of putting the entry together!)

One reason I’m writing this now is that some of the bigger award programs launch early in the new year. This gives you time to review your 2011 programs to decide which might be suitable for entry; more important, it gives you time to collect additional data on well-executed programs that could be award-getters if only they had the kinds of details that back up your strategy. Doing follow-up should be easier for corporate and institutional advancement communicators (who tend to have full access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agency folks may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics or researching campaign effectiveness.

Take Advantage of Early-Bird Deadlines
Perhaps the best reason to start early is the reduced entry fees for early birds. And won’t it be nice, when all your competitors are scrambling come late February, to kick back and focus on your stacks and stacks of regular work?

Time to Reacquaint Yourself with Your Campaign
Now is the time to revisit everything you developed for your campaign – down to emails with the client. When you sit down to write your nomination, you may be asked to provide detailed descriptions of the Communications Environment, Business Challenge, Research, Planning Documents, Competitive Analysis, Market Share and Positioning, Strategy, Goals, Plan, Integrated Activation, and Execution of your program. In addition, you’ll be expected to provide a succinct evaluation of the impact of your efforts and, quite likely, a blurb that encapsulates all of the above in under 100 words (to be used in case you’re a winner).

If you conducted extensive research, used those insights to drive your strategic platform, wrote detailed program strategies, objectives and goals, and put together a spreadsheet of projected media hits, you shouldn’t have any trouble. But, let’s be honest, how often do programs get that kind of attention to detail? And what about a crisis program, where you just did it and didn’t have time to document it (much less plan it extensively beforehand)?

Now is your chance to go back over your notes and planning emails, to retrace your brainstorming, and develop language around each of the questions you’ll be asked on the entry. You can still find previous years’ entry forms on most awards websites; the questions won’t vary too much from year to year.

If you created a campaign this year that utilized a brand new technology or that focused on an entirely new category (a few years ago, most programs added social media campaigns and environmental sustainability categories, for example), now is also a good time to look over the 2012 programs to see if a new category has been added to cover your program. If you don’t see it, connect with the program coordinator ahead of time to see if there will be new categories this year or to figure out which existing category is best for your program.

Better to Kill a Tree than Kill Your Darlings
I completely understand how hard it can be to watch what appears to be a video at your desk for 45 minutes while everyone else in the office is working. But, several of the larger award programs offer live webinars weeks in advance of entry deadlines, featuring award program coordinators and previous years’ judges and winners.

Since every program is different – and some have their strange little quirks, like still not providing an online entry capability – webinars are especially instructive. If you can attend a live webinar versus taped, you’ll really develop an understanding of the mindset of the judges, and you can ask questions. Take advantage of this and remember: if you need to ask the question, chances are another 10 people attending the webinar want to ask it, too, but are afraid to electronically raise their hands.

A few programs provide podcasts while others supply downloadable guides to the specifics of their programs, categories and entries. Go ahead and kill that tree – download it, print it out, comb through it, highlight it, refer to it when writing.

IABC offers an entire webpage of resources, including advice on award categories. PRSA’s Silver Anvil site provides a Search feature of previous winning entries by year and category and there’s an ongoing Twitter discussion about the awards and entry preparation at #PRSANVIL.

All of these are essential viewing/reading/listening/tweeting.

Carefully Compare Your Campaign with Award Categories
This step is far more important – and confusing – than you might think. Where might your client’s campaign for an existing product fit amongst categories as specific as Event Marketing, Influencer Programs, Branding Campaigns, or Re-positioning Programs? Did you notice whether there was a single and a multiple Event category?

Category selection is critical because once your entry is before the judges, there are no do-overs. If, during the judging sessions, the panel decides your entry is in the wrong category, it will be eliminated – completely – from the award competition. They will not contact you during the judging session. For every professional award program I’ve looked at, the judges have no discretion to move an entry to another category. Programs consider it entirely your responsibility to select the correct category for your entry, which is one reason why you’re allowed to enter a single program in multiple categories. Note that if you enter the wrong category, you typically forfeit your (hefty) entry fee.

So read the category descriptions carefully and, if there’s any question, ask early and often. Take advantage of webinars and expert resources to find the right answer for your program. It will be worth it.

A side note: many organizations honor career, individual, agency, and student achievement. Sometimes these are given out as part of their main awards programs, but schedules do vary, so while you’re taking a look at award program websites, it’s worth the time to explore all of these options.

Study Previous Winners
A number of programs share examples and case studies of prior winners on their websites. These can be especially valuable to read when they include the entire written entry. It’s worth noting that if you are reading a short and snappy write-up about a campaign, this is typically not what the judges used to determine the winner; rather it’s the blurb or summary you’re asked to include if you win. Blurbs can give you clues to why a program was awarded a top prize, but they are often too superficial to be helpful guides to writing your own nomination.

Ask Questions
If you’re planning ahead, you’ll avoid that frantic, last-minute phone call or email to the award-program coordinator five minutes before the entry deadline. Ultimately, everything about putting together your nomination is your responsibility, my final tip in the Preparation section is this: some resources may be more helpful than others.

This is not a diss on the official Contact person for these programs – in almost every case, they are standing by till the very last nanosecond, typing at a furious pace to reply to every email query, and returning every last voicemail. They are responsive and diligent. They are also official representatives of this year’s program. As such, they typically won’t provide specific answers, such as which category to enter, in areas deemed the entrant’s responsibility.

While previous years’ judges and winners are usually members of the sponsoring organization, they may be able to provide more specific guidance. As always, remember this advice doesn’t guarantee that this year’s judges will agree. Also, these folks are under no obligation to respond – as the program coordinator is – to close-to-deadline emails and calls. But, it can be more reassuring to hash out a rationale for entering one category over another with someone who’s been there before than feel like your entry is taking an expensive blind leap into the wrong category.

The Hard Truth

Revisiting your program may have the unfortunate effect of highlighting its shortcomings. Awards season is expensive and can get even more pricey when you think about entering a campaign in multiple categories across different programs. (The lowest entry fee I’ve seen is about $160 per campaign; some of the highest are well over $400 per entry, with late fees up to $195 for missing early-bird deadlines.)

Two areas that will be crucial to helping you make your decision are metrics and the timing of your campaign.

The bulk of your campaign should have taken place in 2011:

  • If you had a short-term program or event, you should be fine.
  • If your campaign launched in late 2010, but ran through 2011, it’s always a good idea to confirm eligibility with the award program coordinator.
  • If your program is longer-term and still running – or will continue into 2012 – you will have precious little or no time to produce measurements. Talk it over with the award program coordinator; these programs are best left to the 2013 award season when your results and data will make them competitive.

The good news about timing is that these awards aren’t like the Oscars, where films released in January are forgotten by November. Judges are reviewing your whole program and measuring your results against your strategy and objectives; timing isn’t going to be as heavily weighted as metrics (unless, say, you launched your big 4th of July event in late August).

I’m going to spend more time on this in my next post, but if you discover, after looking over your campaign, that your results or metrics don’t exist, don’t reflect your original objectives, or actually contradict your objectives, you do not have a competitive entry.

If, for example, the goal of an event for a consumer product was to “increase brand loyalty,” and the only data you have to offer the judges in support of your program is the number of attendees at the event and the amount of media impressions you got, you do not have a competitive entry. Your metrics are not tied to your goals because you haven’t measured how the event induced attendees to buy more product or promote the product via word of mouth.

To reiterate, there is still time to gather data before the major award programs launch in 2012. The results you need must be tied to your original program objectives and goals, so review what you set out to do with this campaign, figure out the kinds of data that will back up your goals and how it can be measured.

Once you’ve defined the data needed, you’ll have to ask yourself the hard question about whether it’s attainable. Do you have access to the target audience? Will they be agreeable to having you use their contact information? Can you gather the metrics you need without further cost to your agency or client?

The hard truth may be that the data aren’t within your reach. But, that’s okay. Even though it eliminates this year’s program from award season, it will spur you to include well-defined measurements in every future program you develop. And that, in large part, is what these awards are all about: rewarding the application of rigorous standards to every PR, marketing, advertising and communications program we undertake.

NEXT WEEK: In Part 2, I’ll focus on Writing Your Entry. The writing required for award program entries is highly structured, so I’ll provide more than pointers; I’ll share a free spreadsheet that I’ve developed which you may find helpful in preparing your award entries.

How Will You Spend Banned Books Week?

Did you know that in addition to the massively popular young adult series Twilight and The Hunger Games, the books in 2010 most likely to be challenged – in the hopes of banning them from schools, libraries and stores – include Nickel and Dimed and Brave New World?

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is an expose by Barbara Ehrenreich of the 1996 welfare reform act (frequently referred to as “welfare to work”) and its affect on the working poor, struggling to get by in low-wage jobs. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (along with George Orwell’s 1984) is frequently listed as one of the best English-language books of the 20th century and is often part of middle- and high-school English curricula.

As I write this entry, from a public library workstation, an entire shelf above my right shoulder is taken over with entries from the Twilight series, multiple copies of each selection, in hardcover and soft, all well-perused, but clearly treasured enough to retain the images of Edward and Bella on their spines. Equally loved copies of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy wait on a shelf further down the aisle.

It is sometimes hard to imagine that book challenges still occur 11 years into the new millennium. They seem like anachronisms, part of the Fahrenheit 451 or Pentagon Papers era. When I stumbled on this website, I learned that Banned Books Week has been around since 1982, founded to confound a growing effort to censor books in schools and libraries, often taking place at the community level, where book-challenges garner limited national news coverage.

This Saturday ushers in 2011’s Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1, during which libraries, bookstores and various Internet locations are sponsoring events, such as “read-outs” of volumes that have fallen prey to challenges and censors.

If banning books bothers you, you may be interested in this state-by-state listing of events.

For further details and event updates, you can follow @BannedBooksWeek on Twitter or connect with the group on Facebook.

The Kids’ Right to Read Project section of the National Coalition Against Censorship website offers valuable resources for parents and teachers who want to challenge book-challenges.

There’s even a Banned Books Week YouTube channel where you can watch interviews and readings by various authors or contribute your very own reading of a favorite book that has fanned the censors’ ire.

To mark Banned Books Week, I plan to re-read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a frequent lodger on banned books lists. Yes, it contains language that should never be used, in written or verbal form; yes, there is a new expurgated version. No, I will not be reading the censored publication despite the discomfort I have reading certain words.

Huckleberry Finn was written as it was to illustrate the mindset of the time – and to demonstrate that even a mind so set could change, and that that change has plenty to do with heart and the compassion human beings should feel for one another, no matter our rank in society. This is a book I first fell in love with at the age of 12, long before any English teacher had the chance to place the work in historical context. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of language (especially the Southern dialect) and Huck’s experiences on the river journey are what convince the reader of Huck’s transformation. It’s why we keep tagging along on the journey with him: to remind ourselves of the value of re-thinking our opinions and the need to be humane.

Which books will you choose to revisit or upload to the virtual read-out?

Get Carded at Your Local (Library, That Is)

I have two public library cards: one for my hometown library on the east coast and one from the Los Angeles Public Library system (seen above), where I live and read most of the year.

This is Library Card Sign-up Month, sponsored by the American Library Association, which is reminding kids and parents during the back-to-school season that a library card is as important as a notebook, pencil, backpack and other study aids and supplies.

With the Internet and powerful online search engines at your beck and call, it’s tempting to think that something as noninteractive as a plastic library card couldn’t possibly be a gateway to exploring, learning and understanding. After all, the computer’s right there on the desk, why would you want to drive all the way to the library?

Still, whether you’re a first grader or a first baseman on a pro baseball team, a library card is your key to realms of knowledge unimagined. (It can even open those doors from the comfort of your own home, using your library’s website to access online resources.)

Three things a library card offers you that the Internet can’t:

The ability to browse. A-ha!, I hear you saying, Amazon lets me do the same thing. Yes, but not in the same way. Not remotely. No matter how young or old you are, may you never lose the sense of wonder that comes from browsing the stacks. Running your finger across the smooth cellophane dust jacket protectors. Letting it land on an intriguing volume just because the title, which you’ve never heard before, intrigues you – or because a sinewy serpent snakes its way from cover illustration to the spine. The thrill as you test the first words of the opening chapter, which is all mixed up with the musty smell of thumbed-over pages. What the Internet doesn’t yet let you do is stand amongst the richness of offerings, live and not virtual, and explore, discover, sink in.

Trained reference librarians. Search engine developers can parse all the algorithms they want, but they’ve yet to equal the wisdom that reference folks possess, and that’s because real knowledge isn’t a matter of crowd-sourcing. Librarians are trained to help you understand the context, select the information or data field, eliminate the noise and bias in the algorithm, in order to find the right sources. If you’re a first grader that probably won’t mean much to you, but when you’re doing your first oral report on mammals, you’ll want to ask a librarian to help you locate the right books, articles and pictures – without weighing down your backpack with unnecessary reference material.

No cost! So far, access to the Internet still requires monthly payment to an ISP. Unless you log on at the library.

If you’ve already got a library card, go out and celebrate it this month with a visit to your local. If you don’t, now’s the time to treat yourself to a world of great reading (and free DVD and CD borrowing and a host of online and download-able resources).

Library Cards Are Very Photogenic

Got your library card? Anyone can celebrate Library Card Sign-up Month by posting a photo – posed with your card, of course – on the ALA Flickr page.

Awkward Beginnings, Lamentable Ledes: How to Avoid First Lines that Lose Readers

"Like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses."

How does the first line of a story create itself in your mind? Do you start with a feeling you want to get across, a concept, or do certain words emerge and begin to form a sentence?

Though there are many kinds of writers – fiction, memoir, corporate, literary nonfiction, journalism – the one thing we’ve all had ingrained in us is that opening lines can make or break a story. Readers will decide to buy or reject a novel based solely on the first sentence. Reporters need to answer Who, What, When, Where, Why and How in their ledes. PR pros have one sentence to convince editors there’s a unique story angle in a press release.

Feature writers have a little more leeway (though not by much). They don’t have to cram in every story concept plus the “five Ws” at the starting line. Still, they must craft an opener that entrances readers enough to keep them turning, scrolling down or clicking through the pages.

It’s easy to find examples of first lines that are enticing, just as simple to spy the clunky ones. But, what makes the great lines sing while the bad ones hit sour notes? Below I’ve described four of the most obvious feature-story mis-ledes and how to avoid them.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Lede
The language swoops and careens, U-turns and dive bombs, attempting to leave the reader dazzled, but more often rendering them dizzy and disoriented. Perhaps the writer has been spending a little too much time with Tom Wolfe?

If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you’ve probably penned an opener like this yourself. I certainly have and more than once. Two of those ledes I’m fine with, one makes me cringe to this day. The ones that worked did so because they were finely detailed descriptions of a sequence of events, giving the reader a visceral sense of being there – in the moment – with the subject of the article. The cringeworthy piece is a classic case of a young writer hepped up on too many doses of New Journalism, trying to bluff her way around a subject she didn’t quite understand, resorting to hyperbole.

I’m not here to knock Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson – they were masters of literary journalism, fanatic observers, astute cultural reporters. They remain required reading for any writer.

For feature writers (especially in the corporate world), this type of writing can be tricky, and not only because your reviewers (and even your profilees) may not appreciate or approve a bold approach. If you’re going to attempt this style of writing, you’ve got to be able to maintain it all the way through – and, like reading long stretches of dialogue written in vernacular, that may be more than your readers or the story can bear. More to the point, you’ll need to have accomplished some seriously in-depth reporting to maintain writing like this at feature length. Most of us don’t have the months (in some cases, years) to dedicate to that kind of immersion journalism, and most subjects won’t give you the access necessary to achieve it.

To see what I mean, here are Wolfe’s opening lines from “The First Tycoon of Teen”:

All these raindrops are high or something. They don’t roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America’s first teen-age tycoon, watches . . . this watery pathology . . . it is sick, fatal. He tightens his seat belt over his bowels . . . A hum rises inside the plane, a shot of air comes shooting through the vent over somebody’s seat, some ass turns on a cone of light, there is a sign stuck out by the runway, a mad, cryptic, insane instruction to the pilot—Runway 4, Are Cylinder Laps Main-side DOWN?—and beyond, disoriented crop rows of sulphur blue lights, like the lights on top of a New Jersey toothpaste factory, only spreading on and on in sulphur blue rows over Los Angeles County. It is . . . disoriented. Schizoid raindrops. The plane breaks in two on takeoff and everybody in the front half comes rushing toward Phil Spector in a gush of bodies in a thick orange—napalm! No, it happens aloft; there is a long rip in the side of the plane, it just rips, he can see the top ripping, folding back in sick curds, like a sick Dali egg, and Phil Spector goes sailing through the rip, dark, freezing. And the engine, it is reedy

Gripping stuff, right? Draws you in, sits you down in Spector’s airplane seat and makes you see, feel, gulp right along with the ‘60s hitmaker.

Now, think about how much reporting – how much detail – Wolfe includes in one short paragraph in order to place you into the mind of his subject.

“Sometimes I used point-of-view in the [Henry] Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene,” Wolfe writes of his New Journalism pieces.

For the Spector profile, Wolfe continues, “I began the article not only inside his mind but with a virtual stream of consciousness. One of the news magazines apparently regarded my Spector story as an improbable feat, because they interviewed him and asked him if he didn’t think this passage was merely a fiction that appropriated his name. Spector said that, in fact, he found it quite accurate. This should have come as no surprise, since every detail in the passage was taken from a long interview with Spector about exactly how he had felt at the time.” (Italics mine.)

If you’ve been given full access to a subject and won his or her trust, I encourage you to go for it: note the details that seem especially meaningful to the person and relevant to your topic, go beyond basic questions to ask what they were thinking and feeling, ask what surprised them, what was unexpected, what embarrassed or unnerved them. This is how you will gather the specific images that make a fully realized picture, how compelling writing can be sustained over the length of a feature.

The Spotlight-on-You Start
Making the writer the subject is questionable in almost all circumstances. The clearest (and possibly only) case for using this approach is asking someone renowned to interview a colleague with the goal of generating spirited dialogue that enhances readers’ understanding of a complex subject.

The “all about me” lede is a hallmark of celebrity reporters, callow journalists and misguided flacks:

  • “Emma Stone is telling me why she’s so over ingénue roles.”
  • “It takes me eight hours, riding shotgun in a Jeep straight out of WWII military surplus with zero shocks and dubious tires, to cross the blazing desert to Zacaro’s hideout. He’s eluded the ruling junta for 14 desperate years, but I am the journalist he’s chosen to tell his story to.”
  • “This writer spent a fascinating morning watching candidate Joe Smith return to his roots as a history teacher when he held a sophomore class at an inner-city high school enthralled with descriptions of Revolutionary War skirmishes.”

Writers who embed themselves in the story typically don’t have enough material to create a strong feature. They’re padding. If you feel the urge to spotlight yourself because you didn’t get enough time with your subject or because there’s honestly not a lot to say about something, use your creativity in a different way. Use photographs, illustrations or charts to underscore the subject matter and let your text supply the captions. Or simply keep the story short – every subject doesn’t automatically deserve feature-length prose, and your readers will appreciate a two-graf article that clearly and concisely tells them what they need to know without any gratuitous filler.

Quoth the Maven
You’ll find many feature stories leading with a quote from the profilee and, though there’s nothing inherently wrong about this choice, there are two things to avoid if you use a quotation-lede:

Skip lengthy, ghost-written, off-topic and pedestrian quotes. A sparkling observation by your subject will grab readers’ attention, but quotes that cram in too many concepts (often crafted by well-meaning communications folks trying to encapsulate every message they want to get across) tend to make your audience’s eyes glaze over. And, while you may have a few great lines from your source, a witty remark that’s just there to entice the audience to read the article may backfire if the rest of the article doesn’t offer a similar payoff. Dull quotes are just that and don’t deserve prime real estate in your feature.

Starting with a quote inevitably leads to this kind of locution:

“The economy is so anemic, even large transfusions of cash won’t restore it to iron-blooded vigor.” That’s the assertion of economist Dan Smith…

It’s not like that “That’s” is a sin against the grammar gods, but this usage is so frequently employed that it will mark your feature as a dashed-off piece of journeyman journalism rather than a selection that deserves the reader’s attention.

Commencing with a Question
Similar to the quotation-lede, the Q&A format can feel like a fallback position to the reader, particularly when the Qs are generic (“Where did you get your start in business?”) and the As sound canned. Worse still is the Q&A that strives too hard for authenticity by transcribing every verbal tic or pause: um, uh, well, like, sort of, you know (you get the picture).

If you attempt a Q&A and the answers read like well-prepared messages – or worse, like your interviewee can only speak in half-sentences, never clearly explaining something – when you read it through while editing, this is a signal to leap to the reader’s aid. Rewrite the piece, using your prose to guide the audience through the subject, zeroing in on only the sharpest quotes.

Let’s face it, we all can’t be Mike Wallace squaring off with corrupt politicians for perspiration-inducing interrogations – and frankly it’s not our role to be Mike Wallace if we’re corporate communicators. But, if you want to give your audience edge-of-their-seat Q&As and would like some helpful reading about how it’s done, you could do worse than search old issues of Playboy. I am actually serious about that. The reality behind the old joke “I only read Playboy for the articles” is a long tradition of incisive interviews with world leaders, innovators, artists and authors – all Q&As. (You can probably stop looking after the mid-1980s, though…) Also, watch or revisit the movie “Frost/Nixon” to remind yourself of the kind of questions that inspire insightful answers, raising both interviewer and subject to more stimulating levels of discourse.

What are your favorite examples of bad beginnings? Which opening lines do you love because they serve the subject matter so perfectly? Share them in the Comments.

Winning: What Awards Can Do for Your Career

Whether you write professionally or for your own satisfaction, you most likely at some point have considered entering your work in award programs or contests. (Awww, go on, you know you have.)

Later in September, I’ll offer tips and strategies for corporate writers interested in entering award programs sponsored by professional communications organizations. Today, a few thoughts on the value of validation and links to writing award programs, contests and fellowships for professional, fiction, nonfiction and screenplay/TV writers.

I’ve been on both sides of these equations: I’m a professional writer (going on three decades); I write short stories in my spare time and a novel is beginning to take form in the recesses of my computer; I’ve won awards from communications organizations as well as writing contests for my personal stuff; I’ve served as a judge for professional award programs.

I have a deep respect for people who believe that writing is its own reward whether someone else reads it or not, but I’m gonna have to admit it: my ego is not that highly evolved. A journal is the place where my unseen writing goes. Everything else I write not for self-aggrandizement, but with an audience and my own skill improvement in mind. It’s likely that writing professionally from the age of 19 has shaped my view that putting work out there for others to comment on teaches a writer more about writing and helps her or him learn how to incorporate feedback and grow more skilled and confident each time fingers hit the keyboard or pen touches paper.

As a result, I think awards and contests are beneficial for writers. Writing mostly happens in isolation: you, your mind, your computer. It’s a lovely boost to one’s confidence to receive acknowledgement for all your hard work. Some programs provide feedback, which is especially helpful and serves as a guide to the judging criteria for future entries.

Awards, Contests and Fellowships

For the writer or communicator who’s eager to find out where his or her work stands with respect to judging committees and colleagues in the industry, you’ll find links to programs below.

A quick word on entering your work into any program (I’ll expand on this further in my post later this month): read and follow the entry requirements to the letter. If, for whatever reason, your work doesn’t have the requested support materials (for example, a beat sheet for screenplay entries or some kind of audience survey for corporate communications pieces), there is no question your entry will lose points – often significant points, leaving it in the reject pile. When I first was asked to judge award programs, there was a bit of individual leeway if an entry was so well done that it would secure top place if it just had a bit more supporting material. Today, judging is based on numerical assignments for both content and execution – followed by some complex mathematical formulations that give me flashbacks to high school geometry class. In most cases, more than one judge reviews the material to eliminate bias.

It’s gut-wrenching when you read great writing, but have no support material to back it up, and have to eliminate entries from the competition. But, this will happen, and it’s better not to waste your money or the considerable time it takes to put together a winning entry by submitting something that doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the award or contest.

For corporate communicators: Organizations such as the International Association of Business Communicators and the Public Relations Society of America sponsor award programs that are respected in the industry. Most of the larger industry publications present awards, as well, including PR NewsPR Week, and Bulldog Reporter.

Novelists, short story writers, memoirists, literary-nonfiction writers: Rather than list every literary journal (and there are tens upon thousands!), I recommend subscribing to the Gotham Writers’ Workshops’ email newsletter. You’ll receive weekly updates on writing contests (and deadline reminders) for fiction and nonfiction writing.

For neighboring scribes in Hollywood: Likewise, there are numerous contests and most broadcast and cable networks offer development fellowships. There’s a terrific blog, “Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer,” which provides an excellent list of links for TV and screenwriting fellowships and contests in the right-hand column of resources.

Sorry, Charlie

“Winning” is not really what Charlie Sheen seems to think it is. It’s not about using your laurels as a chaise longue or a soapbox.

Certainly, there are some awards, like a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or an Oscar, that will change your life and significantly expand your career prospects. A Gold Quill may give you short-term bounce. From personal experience, the contests I’ve won for short stories and essays (which involved publication in an anthology) brought no reaction from anyone anywhere. The professional honors, however, brought me two bonafide job offers and probably gave my resume a slight edge over others for a few years. Awards look good on your bookshelf, too, but over time they gather dust like any other tchotchke.

This seems like an apropos time to talk about winning since the U.S. Open tennis tournament is on. When you watch a tournament match, you’re seeing a small percentage of the time a player puts in. Winning is but a brief moment; the rest is practice, conditioning, viewing scouting reports, some more practice, physical therapy, nutrition, and still more practice. The day after a championship win, a player goes back out on the practice court, works on everything that went wrong the day before, and goes through the same routine of practice, scouting, gym, and still more practice.

It’s no different for a writer. It’s our constant practice of the craft, and the effort to accrue more knowledge about the work we do, that occasionally brings accolades. And then, we sit down at our desks and try to do an even better job than the day before.