How to Write a Prize-Winning Poem

…and then lose the contest.

My poem about an oak tree.

Text and photo ©2012 Phil Combs. All rights reserved.

I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I started writing fiction when I was a kid in grade school and continued right through college. I ended up with a B.A. in English and was one of the first in the English program to get a Certificate of Professional Writing. I went into tech writing for ten years before moving into computers and technical support where I now labor. I’ve published a few tech articles in the now-defunct Amazing Computing for the Commodore Amiga as well as the maker periodical Nuts & Volts. My love of writing (and my missing the work in my field of accreditation) eventually led to the blog you’re reading today.

Part of the reason I’ve been distracted from writing over the years is my love of all things technical. All that tinkering takes time away from the keyboard. So imagine my excitement when I got word of an opportunity to indulge in two of my favorite activities—and one would make it directly possible to benefit from the other!

InfoComm is an enormous audiovisual trade show that’s held annually in the U.S., and alternately in two locations. This year its back in my favorite “OMG did you see that?” town: Las Vegas. I was going in 2010 and my employer was footing the bill, but the discovery of my clogged LAD artery had me in the operating room the day I was scheduled to leave on the trip. Last year my employer told me that my “job responsibilities have changed” and so they couldn’t justify sending me. (I am still heavily involved with technology; go figure.)  Now they simply claim abject poverty so any out of state business travel is off the table. I found out that there would be a drawing this year from the pool of early InfoComm registrants for an all-expense-paid trip to the show (less food and gratuities), so I pre-registered at no cost anyway. The deadline came and went and I lost that one so I put my InfoComm hopes away.

Then I received an email from the show announcing a poetry contest. The prize would be the same—an all-expense-paid trip to the show. This wasn’t simply a game of chance but a competition of skill. And, it was something I knew and had a genuine shot at winning! I rubbed my hands together, dug out my sharpest quill (used only for the most personal of my work) as well as a stack of parchment and prepared my contest entry.  The steps I followed here should be used for any competitive work where there is some creativity involved. College prepared me for some of this and the rest I learned along the way.

1)      Examine the contest rules carefully.  In this case I was tasked to write an “acrostic” poem. In this form the first letter of every line will spell a word. The three choices of words were “InfoComm,” “Las Vegas” and “audiovisual.” The given example seemed thrown together and didn’t have lot of meat to it (as an example should be), so I followed some links and learned far more about acrostics than I ever wanted to know. I also noted the submittal deadline and that there was a “one entry per person” limitation. On the official entry form they provided a checkbox for my agreement to “all of the Contest Official Terms and Conditions as outlined on and other related links.” Going to the main link uncovered no such rules or related links, so I made some safe assumptions from other contests I’ve entered.

  • My contest entry becomes the property of InfoComm International. This means the contest promoter can use the entry in any way they wish without further compensation to me. This is pretty standard stuff.
  • The contest promoter isn’t responsible for late, lost, illegible, stolen, or misdirected entries.

The main thing to remember is that, in most states, contests are strictly regulated to ensure fairness. Failure by an organization to thoroughly ensure that the contest is properly and fairly conducted can open them up to all manner of legal problems. You can be reasonably assured that, unless the sponsor’s management are complete morons, they’ve covered themselves and your entry will be fairly handled.

2)      Research your subject.  A visit to the show’s website revealed the show’s theme this year (“Communications Intensified”) as well as the various dimensions of the event. InfoComm prides itself on training and certification opportunities for its membership and attendees, as well as the ability to network with others in the field. It offers tours of local facilities to showcase the latest technology as well as how particular problems are solved. Its show floor is unparalleled, with hundreds of exhibitors as well as dedicated pavilions for specific areas such as audio and digital signage. They offer information for attendees for local sights and give suggestions for off-hours activities and networking. I noted these points and resolved to hit as many as I could with my work. In order to provide as much room as possible for the promotional “meat,” I chose the word ‘audiovisual’ to frame my work.

3)      Tailor your work to suit the subject / organization. This should be a no-brainer.  If the sponsor sells shoes, your work should focus on shoes; you wouldn’t extoll the virtues of going barefoot if New Balance  is holding the contest. The contest information said the work would be highlighted on the show blog as well as in the promotional materials, so I kept that in mind. That way the work can get the maximum usage by the contest giver (and exposure for you and your labor).

4)      Add some flourish and style to make it your own. Only one out of three word choices were necessary to frame the poem. I used one for the acrostic component and mentioned the other two within the poem itself. Mentioning the show’s theme within the poem also seemed to be a “can’t miss.”

5)      Follow the submission guidelines to ensure your entry is accepted. I submitted mine in an email to the provided address on Friday afternoon; the deadline was the following Monday at 5 p.m. EST. I received an immediate “out of office” robo-response so that told me my entry was received.

Given the above points I crafted what I considered to be a noble effort that met the intent and stated rules of the contest. I offer my contest submission for your consideration:

All that you need, everything you seek
Unified in one place in the space of a week.
Dazzling new tech, ideas and connections
Inspire Communications Intensified in brand-new directions.
Organized tours showcase real-world solutions
Vendors display products for your institutions.
Intensive training, seminars, and courses provides
So much for an upgrade to your bona fides.
Unique opportunities await—so won’t you go
And get an advantage over others you know?
Las Vegas is the place and INFOCOMM’s the show.

It’s obviously not fine literature but it hits the high points and, I think, makes a damn fine promotional piece for the event. It can also be reused for multiple shows by changing the third and fourth lines (for the show theme) and the destination city in the last line. I worried a lot because I’m not the world’s best poet but soon realized that I didn’t have to be. I just needed to be the best poet of all the contest participants.

It’s difficult to create anything, even something like this that many would consider as a ‘throwaway’, without some pride and the confidence that it will be a winner. I waited well over a week for the contest results and tried not to pre-plan how I’d spend my off-time (but I had ideas!). The day of the contest announcement found me on pins and needles. Time dragged by with no email announcement and no posting on the show blog. Finally in late morning there was a blog posting, and guess what?

I didn’t win. But after reading the winning submission I was nonplussed. I won’t reprint the winning poem as it is someone else’s work but you can read it here. The anointed work used romantic, picturesque language and entreated the muse Calliope for her favor to win–with passing mentions of the show’s various aspects. In percentages, nearly 50% of the winning poem had little to do with InfoComm. With that being said I won’t cast aspersions on the winner’s work–the poem itself is nicely crafted and is certainly a fine example of the art. By my understanding of this contest’s intent, however, it just doesn’t have the characteristics of what a winning entry should have been.

There isn’t a way to tackle this subject without it sounding like sour grapes. I’ll admit there are indeed sour grapes on my part, but I’ll use the definition given by the late comedian George Carlin from his book Brain Droppings. Mr. Carlin said the term meant the “rationalization of failure to attain a desired end. … It doesn’t deal with jealousy or sore losing.” In that spirit I will take some educated guesses as to why my entry bombed out by adding the following corollaries and conclusion to my points above.

1a)  Ensure the contest rules are explicitly spelled out.  In this case the given contest rules were sparse. Expanded rules were either not available (or easily discoverable) on the event’s website as promised on the entry form. Ideally these rules would have defined a number of things, including…

  •  The number of people judging the entries and their qualifications. In the photo contests sponsored by manufacturers that are advertised in publications like Popular Photography there are panels of judges from different aspects of the industry. Some of them are usually other photographers, some are publishers, and some are manufacturer’s reps. This insures a wider gamut of eyes looking at the entries and minimizes bias. This is crucial in efforts where creative works are judged since personal tastes are subjective.
  • The criteria under which the work will be judged. In this case the form was spelled out (acrostic poem) and there was an implied requirement that the poem should somehow relate to the show. There was a statement that “the more creative the better” but beyond that everything was open to interpretation.
  • A methodology for revealing the total number of entries in the pool. Game-of-chance contests base chances of winning on the number of entries received, but since it was skill-driven a method of disclosing the number of entries should have been defined. To be fair to all the participants, you need to tell them how much competition they faced.

2a)  Know something about the qualifications of those on the judging panel. This is as simple (in the photo contest example) as reading the bios of the judges. Someone who works with creative writing every day is looking for one thing; a director of corporate marketing should be looking for something completely different. Knowing this information in advance will help you properly tailor your work.

3a and 4a)  Don’t expect that your method of expressing information about the organization will be acceptable. It could be killer ad copy, a catchy jingle or a modern take on Paradise Lost, but if it doesn’t fit with the organization’s image and message you’re wasting your time. This organization deals with technology, problem-solving and trade education, so it seemed that a more fact-related approach was warranted. Who knew they were given to the Classics?

I gave considerable thought to this situation and sent an email to the Public Relations manager at InfoComm who handled the contest entries. I was polite but asked the following three questions:

a)      How big was the entry pool?
b)      How many people were on the judging panel?
c)      Of the total number on the judging panel, what was the male/female ratio?

(That last question could be considered sexist, but I’ve seen though my coursework that males and females generally look for different things in their poetry.) I realize this is a busy time for the organization since they’re prepping for the show, but as of the time of this posting my questions remain unanswered. Given the outcome of the contest and the points I’ve raised above I offer the following conclusions:

1: The contest was hastily slapped together and executed. This can be exemplified by the sparsely-given rules and the lack of expanded rules on their website and leads to the second conclusion, which is…

2: There was little to no interdepartmental communication within the organization about the contest. If there were comprehensive rules, the web team either didn’t receive them or they failed to link to them in an easily-accessible way. This could also mean that the legal department didn’t see or clear the contest, which could open them up to litigation if any of the other contestants took issue with the results. The apparent lack of communication also indicates that…

3:  There was no panel of judges, and if there was, there wasn’t a representative from Marketing. I can’t believe that anyone with a marketing mindset would vote for the winning entry. There simply wasn’t enough show-related promotional content in the chosen work. Most likely one person was the sole judge—someone with a soft spot for this type of poetry.

I don’t expect that my entry was the only one that was more on-point with the show’s intended message. This contest was inherently flawed by its design. The organization, if challenged, could simply claim its determination of the winner was fair without providing proof of their assertion and that would be the end of it. But conducting your business in that manner is detrimental to the goodwill and image of your organization. Who takes any entity at their word anymore with the debacles we’ve seen by Wall Street and our own government? Given what transpired here the only lesson to carry away is this one: You can go hunting and be loaded for bear but if you’re working blind you’ll never know whether you’ll hit your mark.

If I had a do-over I think I’d just buy some lottery tickets and try winning enough to pay for the trip. Either that or I’d spend most of my poem appealing to Euterpe and let sibling rivalry determine the contest’s outcome.

UPDATE 5/26/2012:  I received an email from Betsy Jaffe, Director of Public Relations for InfoComm International after my original posting. She directly addressed some of my concerns, and I will selectively quote from her email:

“It was a very popular contest, with more than 100 qualified entries.  The five-person judging panel had a difficult time choosing a clear winner because of the large number of excellent entries. The panel included representatives from the marketing and expositions department, and contained both male and female judges. Each poem was ranked on a scale of one through five. A sixth tie-breaking judge was identified in advance.

While I know that it must be terribly disappointing not to win this time, know that poetry is a subjective art and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.

It was our plan to run a “Best of the Rest” posts (sic) with some of our other favorite entries.  Since you seem angry, I am not sure if it is okay for us to feature your poem.  Kind regards, Betsy”

My response, also selectively quoted:

“I understand that the art of writing is subjective as I’d mentioned in my posting. It just didn’t seem to me that the chosen work hit the mark. Not having information about some of the contest particulars was frustrating. But since you’ve provided that information it helps me to feel that the contest was, indeed, more balanced than I’d believed. I wanted to express my confusion over the results, not anger for failing to win.”  I also gave my permission to run my contest entry if they chose to do so.

I stand corrected in my conclusions, but the tips I gave above are still valid. Any writer entering a contest should carefully prepare and gather as much information as possible before expending their creative effort.

And given that there were five members on this judging panel, I still think I should’ve entreated Euterpe.

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