The art of entering: #SND36 survival tips

Well, look who it is — your old buddy, Josh.

In the run-up to judging a year ago, we hit you with a mini-series on the Best of News Design Creative Competition on this site. Personal favorites were a bit on keeping awards in perspective and a look at previous medal-winners in SND competitions. So, let’s try for a reprise, as the entry deadline for SND36 is Wednesday, with judging kicking off on Feb. 27.

(Side note, if you even have a half-interest in the competition this year, you’re going to want to check out what we have in store here in this space. SND.org will cover judging with a scope never-before deployed.)

I realize if you haven’t decided yet whether to enter, you’re going to have to scramble, but this is intended as a bigger-picture collection of thoughts on entering the Best of News Design. I’ll make it quick, but I have had every role one can take on — currently I chair the print competition committee, but I’ve been a judge, facilitator and team captain — and one can’t help but pick up trends among winners and habits in the out stacks. That’s what this is about: A very quick set of thoughts on what may serve individuals and papers during the cuttin’ and the tapin’ right here:

Be a hater: The phrase “your own worst critic” has such a politically correct connotation, and is rarely accurate. Give any designer worth her salt 10 minutes, and she can find someone with worse things to say about your work than you. That’s who you need to be.

It’s cold and mean and against all the wonderful, happy, shiny feelings we should have, but the only path to work that your audience loves is to loathe it yourself. The best designers I know lose sleep over photo toning, kerning and half-points, and when they finally get that sleep they wake up screaming due to an editing-mistake nightmare. The best designers I know are capable of turning out presentations that are by all rights works of art, and the nicest thing they’ll say about it *might* be, “Yeah it’s all right,” without a hint of irony.

But it’s only from being hyper-unimpressed with your own work that you can see angles from which a reader — or a contest judge — might just be regular-unimpressed. What you’re trying to do is squeeze out all responses to, “What could we have done to make this better?” and “Why didn’t we do it?” because competition judges will exhaust all possible answers.

Target your entries: The most common entry mistake comes from casting too wide of a net. Designers who have the budget (or ability) for 50 entries and enter what they believe to be their best 50 pages one time each in the same category account for the majority of every out stack in every SND competition.

This is not the softball toss at the Okmulgee Town Fair: You are allowed to take as many shots as you like. Instead of throwing all 50 of those entries up in the air and hoping that 10 of them stick, strongly consider finding your 10 best pieces of work from the year and looking for five different places to enter them.

For example: A powerful breaking news front page with a great photo could be entered in Category 3 (News Pages), Category 4 (Breaking News) and Category 14 (Photography), and if it stands a better chance to win three times than all 40 of your “lesser” pages combined, well remember, you paid to enter this competition and you [puts on sunglasses] needs to gets yours.

Enter your best work rather than your best pages: My personal opinion is that the greatest single award of excellence is for a single page. The reason I believe that is that the standard of excellence is so crazy high in SND that it’s a wonder that any single page ever hits the mark, and yet every year hundreds of pages manage to raise the standard a bit more.

But the best way to impress with your work is to let it compound itself. Your fantastic front page may need to be a 9 out of 10 to land an award in a single-page category (or a 10 out of 10 in a special section page category), but if you have a bunch of inside pages that go with that front, and they are all 7 or 8 out of 10, then you’ve turned out not only a legitimate contender for a multi-page breaking news (Category 4) entry, but possibly one that can medal.

More impressive, though, are day-over-day entries. Category 5, Special News Topics, and Category 9, Special Coverage, are all designed to show a body of work over time on one subject. If you have done work that shows consistency in design, photo editing, or typography, over a series of pages, then you are going to stand a much better chance at landing an award of excellence in one of those long form categories than they’ll have on their own as single pages.

There are plenty more ideas, thoughts and secret recipes for success, but they generally all circle back to being overly critical of your work as it happens and overly purposeful in entering, so we’ll call this good for tonight and continue this discussion all the way through judging.