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Come to Conference, Win Contests

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BY TY STOCKTON
I’m always amazed when OWAA members say they don’t enter the Excellence in Craft contests. You won’t get rich by winning contests, but you can pick up some extra cash — sometimes even enough to have to report it to the IRS.
But what surprises me even more than hearing about writers who don’t enter their work, is hearing about people who do enter, but don’t win, but also don’t go to OWAA’s annual conference.
I entered OWAA’s contests for years before I finally won an award. That win came the year after I attended my first conference.
It wasn’t a coincidence. At conference I took advantage of information shared by legends in the outdoor communication world and picked up tips from colleagues who seem to sweep every contest category they enter.
During that first conference I attended in Spokane, Wash., I sat in on a session presented by the great Patrick F. McManus about writing with humor. At the time, I was writing a weekly column for my city’s newspaper and I tried to make it funny as often as possible. McManus urged us to never force it, to use real-world examples when possible, to master the art of exaggerating those examples and to not be afraid to use humor, even on straight news stories. His advice greatly improved my writing.
In the three months following the conference, I received more positive letters from readers than I had in my previous two years of writing for the paper combined.
And that was just one of the sessions that helped me improve. I’d mention several other examples, but I’m under an 800-word limit (and one of the other tips I picked up from that conference was to always give an editor what he or she asks for).
Outside the conference sessions I introduced myself to several of the people whose names I recognized from bylines– and from the OU listings of contest winners. I read the winning entries that were set out on display. I talked to the winners about specific pieces and, by sheer luck, I happened to find one of the people who judged one of the categories I entered. I was able to pick his brain about the category, what he looked for and what it was about the winning entries that made them shine.
The judge, the speakers and other contest winners opened my eyes to mistakes I hadn’t realized I was making and things I could do better.
After attending that first conference, I kicked myself for not attending one sooner.
I had thought I couldn’t afford to go to a conference– in terms of finances and time. However, I spent $150 that year in conference fees and another $600 for a hotel room and travel. In the following year, I got a raise from the newspaper for improving my writing (worth roughly $800 a year); I sold three freelance stories as a direct result of the contacts I made at conference (for another $800); and I won several EIC awards the following year (another $600, though I spent $125 on entry fees). My return on investment came out to about $1,325, or $525, if you don’t count the raise.
I’ve had even better returns from each conference I’ve attended since then. In fact, in Roanoke, Va., I learned how to produce my own radio show, which is where I make the bulk of my freelance money now – and it’s also where I win most of my EIC awards.
Come to McAllen, Texas, this year. I’ll be there, and I’d be happy to talk to you about what works for me. And I’ll probably ask you questions about what works for you— I can’t afford not to. ♦
— Ty Stockton is a freelance writer, photographer and radio host who lives in Cheyenne, Wyo. Stockton has been a member of OWAA since 1999.
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