Tips on Contest Entries

This column originally was published in the March 2014 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

By Bill Ervolino
Contest Chair
National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Bill Ervolino

Bill Ervolino

Contest deadlines are looming — and NSNC’s has been extended to April 1, thank goodness — and I know that, any day now, my editor is going to send me a terse note: “Send me your 10 best columns of 2013 by tomorrow.”

TOMORROW?

Yikes.

Talk about all-nighters.

Sometimes I think I spend more time poring through my favorite columns than I spent writing them.

But, the reason for this is simple: Just because they’re my favorites doesn’t mean they’re my best work.

And while we’re at it: Just because they were your readers’ favorites doesn’t mean they’re your best work, either.

At my newspaper — The Record in northern New Jersey — writers send their “10 best” columns, breaking news stories, features etc. to their editors, who look through them, choose their favorites, and then send them along to the editor above him or her, aka The Minister of Contest Entries.

Rules for these contests vary. Some want as many as 10 entries. Others — like the NSNC — are happy with three.

The big question, of course, is which ones?

If your newspaper is doing the entering (and paying the entry fees), that can ease some of the misery. Someone else will be making that final decision.

If you’re a blogger or columnist in this by your lonesome, though, choosing those final entries can be agonizing.

Is this one better than that one? And what about that one over there?

I’ve been a columnist since 1976, but didn’t even know there were journalism awards — except for that big one that starts with a P — until I joined The Record in 1990.

The fact is, I’ve never entered any of these contests. My editors always did it for me. And, since they started, I’ve been a four-time NSNC winner, a four-time Society of the Silurians winner, a two-time Penney-Missouri finalist and the recipient of assorted other awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

The first time I got a phone call from the Society of the Silurians — “Congratulations! You won!” — I didn’t even know who they were, or what I’d won for. (As I later learned, they are the oldest continuing journalism group in the country, and their contest is open to writers and reporters in our tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — no small potatoes.)

All I had done, months earlier, was send my “10 favorites” to my editor. For all I knew, he had papered his bathroom with them.

For those struggling to choose the perfect 10 (or four, or six or three) there is, alas, no precise science. Your editor may disagree with one or two of your final three. And the person judging your contest may not be swayed by any of them.

As someone who has also served as a judge in contests from other states, I can share a few tips. None of them are infallible, of course, but perhaps they’ll help if you’re still slogging through your archives.

  • Keep in mind that your average judge is digesting MANY entries at once. Like your own regular readers, this judge is most probably going to read lots of other stuff before he or she gets to your column.
  • For me, style matters. I love a good lead as much as anyone else in this business and I appreciate a satisfying ending, especially if it’s a humor column. (As a humor columnist myself, I’ve tossed a few columns that I thought were quite good, otherwise, because I knew the endings weren’t strong enough.)
  • For a metro column, I appreciate a solid prose style, particularly if there’s a freshness to it. If it reads exactly like the last 25 columns I’ve looked at, it probably isn’t going to make it into my MAYBE pile.
  • Reporting matters in most news columns. And, since I’m often from another part of the country than the entries I’m reading, I want to be able to glean enough information from the entry to understand whatever matter the writer is addressing. (Unless the subject is a national story, “the ongoing Smith trial” isn’t going to help me very much. I need to know what that ongoing Smith trial is about.)
  • If the column has a strong point of view, even better. Few things make me feel more impartial than choosing a winner who would most likely disagree with me on every issue known to man. I’m not judging your opinion, I’m judging how effective you are in putting it across.
  • A good column about a subject that’s been done to death may not be your best choice, while a well-written piece on teeny slice of life may bowl the judges over.
  • If you have to re-read your own 15 or so “semi-finalists” a few times before making a final decision, that’s good too — because, often, that’s what the judges will do.

The ones that stand up to several re-readings are most likely your best.

• • •

Internet cafe, Ukrainian Scout Jamboree 2009

Internet cafe, Ukrainian Scout Jamboree 2009. Photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy

Relief, sweet relief!

Attention bloggers and columnists: The 2014 NSNC Column Contest deadline has been extended to Tuesday, April 1.

• • •

Bill Ervolino is humor columnist for The Record of northern New Jersey.

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