Contests and awards are wonderful. Americans love them and love winners, above all, from the Olympics to the Pulitzer to The Voice. We love a winner, and that’s what we all want to be, a winner.
What happens when we come close? What happens when we’re so good that we beat out hundreds of others to become one of a handful of finalists, but we don’t win? I’ve been there a number of times in my writing career, most notably when I was a finalist for a prestigious national poetry award with a nice cash award that you had to be nominated for. I really hoped I would win it, but that was not to be. Bummer! When I checked out the work of the winner, however, I could see that, if that was the work that spoke to that judge, there had never really been a chance for mine to win. It was great poetry, but a very different type of poetry from mine.
I’m thinking about this today because a dear writing-group friend of mine made it to the finals of a big national award in two different genres, novella and essay. What an accomplishment! Our whole writing group, which is tiny, celebrated with her and rooted for her to win. She just received word that she hadn’t won in either category and is crestfallen and depressed.
I’ve been on just about all the sides of this issue. Not only have I been a finalist who’s not made it to winner status (many times), I’ve been a winner (several times). I’ve also been a screening judge (the ones who read through hundreds of manuscripts to send on one or more finalists) and a final judge in these contests. And I’m telling my friend—and you readers out there—that the real accomplishment is in making the finals. The competition out there is fierce. Out of those hundreds of manuscripts the screening judge must choose one (sometimes with a back-up of another or two) to go on to the finals. I’ve seen many times that I wished I could send more, but it wasn’t possible. So, every one of the finalists is basically a winner. Each manuscript is usually worthy of winning the award in its own right, but the final judge is only allowed to choose one. I’ve seen judges really agonize and beg to name two winners or even three, because the works are all of such high quality. In each case, they’re sent back to choose a single one. It’s practically a coin toss at that point.
My message to my friend and to everyone who reads this who eventually winds up as a finalist for something is this. Making the finals is the real victory. Believe this! Know it deep inside. That way, if you don’t win that last coin toss, you won’t despair. And if you do win, you won’t get a big head and start to think you’re better than everyone else. You’ll know that there are four to nine others who could be in your place if the coin had just fallen slightly differently. Either way, you’re a winner. Congratulations!