Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 20 2023
The season of contests
By 2000, my day job as a university journalism professor and my after-work roles as mother, wife, and daughter left little time for
additional endeavors. But I had been out of the news side of the newspaper business for some time. While the skills needed in that
arena tend to be of the type you don't easily forget, I felt I had been away too long. I didn’t want to be one of those people who
gave credence to the notion that "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach."
Most of my experience had been in news, but I preferred feature writing, where I could look at subjects in more depth. So the role of columnist seemed the best fit, but would it be something I could do?
I joined a local writers' group, hoping it might give me some direction, but my membership was brief. We were divided into those who talked about writing, but probably never would, and those who were already writing and used the group as a sounding board.
At the time, friend Romelle Van Sickle was the publisher of the Riley Countian newspaper. I took the leap and asked her if she would be interested in my writing a weekly piece. She accepted immediately. Uh-oh, what had I done? Did I really need another deadline in my life?
But there was no turning back. Every week I submitted a column and soon I was receiving feedback during routine encounters with parents at our daughters' school, while chatting with co-workers who read the paper, and with neighbors. These comments were helpful in assessing what sort of job I was doing.
It pleased me that my weekly musings seemed to entertain, but I wondered if it was largely because I was writing about places and events we shared. For that matter, maybe people were just being "Kansas nice" to me. Maybe I was the journalistic equivalent of New Yorker Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but she enjoyed trying and her friends flattered her, telling her she was wonderful.
At some point, the idea struck that some non-friend peer review was in order. Submitting column samples to contests organized by professional journalism organizations who knew little or nothing about me would generate comments by folks with no reason to sugarcoat their evaluations.
In 2010, I moved my column online. Husband Art volunteered to do the web work and he insisted that an award received that year be posted. I was uncomfortable, not wanting to blow my own horn. But he said that wasn't the reason. The columns were meant to be enjoyable and, if people like something that is recognized as being of good quality, the enjoyment is enhanced because it makes them feel better about themselves.
Soon the contest submissions became something of a necessity. The university likes its people to be involved in the community. While my motivation for writing the column had been strictly personal, my department head saw it in a different light. My "off-duty" writing efforts suddenly became a portion of my "on-duty" annual review.
Selecting submissions involved re-reading the year's columns and choosing several that seemed to be most representative. Since the entry deadlines were in January, the task of plowing through 52 thousand-word offerings was a bit like squeezing the reading of half of a typical-length nonfiction book into the first two weeks of the year.
Since my choices would certainly be biased, I asked Art for his opinion, something he is rarely at a loss to give. He said while two data points are better than one, it's still a pretty small number. So I began asking friends to help. Art and I would initially generate a list of seven or so. Then, some years we asked them to select their top two, while in others we requested they rank them.
This process validated my suspicion that personal preferences played a major role. A first choice by one person might be placed near the bottom by another. I wanted the judging process to give me a sense of the job I was doing, yet it is impossible to remove the subjective aspect. So wouldn't personal preferences influence the judges as well? A recent year's results confirmed they did. An item the state judge saw as one of the entry's strengths was seen as a weakness by the national judge.
With our daughters grown and gone, I've had more time in recent years and so have expanded my efforts into other areas. This allowed entries into multiple contest categories. My "Snapshots” column, however, is the one category I've entered every year. Contest rules called for the submission of two examples.
Art and I always began with separate parings without consulting the other. From those, we then created the initial pool sent to the others who would choose the final two submissions. But I discovered this year the rules had been changed - only a single submission would be allowed. When I alerted Art, he said:
You initially entered contests to get an outside assessment of the job you were doing. Since 2010, you have been recognized every year, including multiple first-place awards. You received eight awards last year alone. I think the jury is in. You're retired, so the results are no longer needed for your work. As you frequently point out, "to everything there is a season." I think the season of contests has passed.
We always looked forward to receiving feedback from the people who helped us choose the final entries. But I have equally enjoyed receiving weekly feedback that included opinions, suggestions and personal experiences. So from here on, I'm going to rely just on you to do the judging.