Writer's Life

Second Place Cravings and Confessions

I couldn’t have been more surprised when I won my first writing award seven years ago. I didn’t even know I was competing until I heard my name called. The journalism piece I wrote was incomplete, too. How could it win anything?

During my last year of college, student media staff members were encouraged to plan a piece of literary journalism. Something big and impressive to put on our recent-graduate résumés. My project: an in-depth feature on the school’s award-winning equestrian team.

It was a huge undertaking. Featuring several multimedia components, including embedded audio from interviews and supplemental video content, I planned to spend most if not all of the school year on it. The other editors contributed their expertise. Together, we built a fully customized microsite to host what would have been the grand finalé of my career as a student journalist.

And it would have been grand… If only I had planned my time better.

The more experienced Amanda of today would have completed all four chapters of the feature–and all their multimedia bells and whistles–before publishing a single one. I also would have started over the summer break before classes and homework ate up most of my time.

But Past Amanda was too busy to think about her own writing. As the chief copy editor at the time, I edited everyone else’s work. I spent three months of my summer break going back and forth on frustrating revisions for another writer. I gave her a maximum word count of 1500, and she sent me 4000. I took it down to 3000 and told her to cut half of it. She sent me back the original 4000 and asked me to pare it down for her.

I did. Twice.

When I finally got to work on my own project, I only completed the first chapter, which focused on one of the equestrian team’s co-captains. The second chapter would have featured the facilities and the horses–my favorite was a one-eyed horse named Gaston. Chapter three would have explored the team’s training and competitions. Finally, chapter four would have explored what sort of equestrian-related careers students at an art school were pursuing.

By the time January 2015 rolled around, I realized I was in trouble. I was never going to finish it before the winter quarter ended in March. As a soon-to-be writing program graduate, I had to hire my successor to take over in the spring. I abandoned my project and focused on helping prepare the new staff for their responsibilities.

Then, in February, our staff was invited to attend a two-day conference and communications workshop series at Savannah State University. At the end was an award ceremony. Since the only attendees from my school were myself, our advisor, and one other editor, we stayed to accept any awards on behalf of our team.

Since I didn’t think I had anything in the running, I focused on enjoying my cake and clapping for all the winners. It took me a minute to realize they actually meant me when they called my name. I went up in front of the room and got my plaque: second place winner for “Outstanding Feature Writing” in the large university division.

Then an even bigger shock hit.

The first-place award for the same category, the same division, went to the piece I spent three months of my summer editing.

It’s not a pretty thing to admit, but I felt a little cheated at the time. So much of what made that piece a first-place winner was my hard work, but I wasn’t credited anywhere. Only a handful of people knew all the work I put into it. But to everyone else, I might not have touched it at all.

For years, it was an awkward topic for me. I wanted to point to my accomplishments and be honest about my work. Instead, I worried I’d be perceived as petty, bitter, or selfish.

It’s normal to crave recognition for your efforts. It’s nice to know you accomplished something and someone else knows it.

The piece I edited and helped revise won first place. I’m proud of that. The piece I wrote and never finished won second place. That is a crazy thing to be able to say about anything! Why wouldn’t I be proud of that? Just because it came with difficult emotions that sucked for a long time doesn’t take away the accomplishment. And that’s way better than free cake.

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