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On The Shoulders Of Giants: Read Winning Entries, Write Better And Win More

On The Shoulders Of Giants: Read Winning Entries, Write Better And Win More
On the shoulders of giants... winning entries


If I could show you a sure way to get your goal, would you instead prefer to use a trial-and-error approach?

I bet no.

Preferring to learn from your own experience is sheer idiocy – could even be painful – if there are forerunners from whose reservoir of knowledge and experience you can tap.

Why am I saying this?

One of my students fancies doing his things his own way. When he recently wrote his entry for an essay competition, he avoided reading, or was too lazy to read the entries that won the contest in the previous years.

His argument was: he did not want to be influenced by the positions taken by those winners in their entries. I called his attention to the difference in the topic of the essay contest in the previous year and the current one. His new argument was, “That means last year’s winning entries aren’t even relevant since the topics are unrelated.”

Now that’s naivety.

It’s a vain thing to rely solely on your own knowledge and research to produce a stellar entry that wins a prize.

Many people have the conception that research making is restricted to gathering materials related to the topic or theme of the essay competition you’re writing your entry for.

It’s not.

Getting it right

Research making for the purpose of entering essay competitions is a holistic exercise which covers – or should cover – the above, knowing about the organizers, their missions, activities, challenges and the objectives they hope to achieve with the essay contest as well as how the past winners (if any) went about their entries.

The winning entries of past editions of a contest are – or should be – great treasures to you whether or not the topic they were written on is the same as the present.

Learning from successful predecessors gives you two vital advantages. First, you’ll build on the strength of the heroes past. Second – and this is very vital – you’ll evade their mistakes.

Many great minds ever to have lived became great because they not only used their own brains, but drank from the fountain of their predecessors’ wisdom.

Isaac Newton – that wizard scientist and Mathematician – was once to recount the secret of his enviable strides in a 1676 letter to his rival, Robert Hooke. And he memorably put it: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

John of Salisbury in his Metalogicon, advances this point further:

We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

Let’s see some case studies

One occasion that made the importance of studying past winning essays sink into my skull was the 2012 CIPMN Essay Competition. I won the second prize while a friend, Onasanya Omobolanle emerged first.

Onasanya had seen, read and even referenced in her own essay, the first prize winning essays of the same competition for the year 2008 written by Olaobaju Oluwaseyi and 2009 written by Ayodele Obajeun.

And as is customary to the CIPMN Essay Competition, the topics for the three years were on economic issues. So the question whether Bola was aided by reading the past winning essays is answered.

Another reference point is the 2013 Goi Peace UNESCO Essay Competition. The prompt was :

“What aspects of the culture in your country or region do you take pride in, and how can youth make the most of them to create a better future?”

The normal approach to writing an entry for it should be to make vigorous research on the culture in your region, gather statistics or use personal experience to show that the aspect of the culture you’re writing on is much valued and then make practical recommendations on how young people can leverage it to make the future better.

Some of my students had earlier done that. But reading through past winning entries, I made a discovery. ALL the essays that ever won since 2000 when the contest was institutionalized are not academic, research-oriented essays.

Each winning entry only recounted the entrant’s personal experience … what he has done or is doing. So rather than start making recommendations on how youth can use culture for a better tomorrow, a good entry should relate how the writer has used or is using an aspect of culture for improving the lots of humanity.

So I guided them accordingly. What if I had not read the past entries simply because they were written on a different topic?

Now where would you rather stand?

On the shoulders of giants or on the bare floor? The motto of Google Scholar provides the answer: “Stand on the shoulders of giants”.

So don’t take award-winning essays with levity. Always read them if you can get them.

Where do you stand on this issue? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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-- Dr. Mahfouz A. Adedimeji | Fulbright scholar | Senior Lecturer, Unilorin | newspaper columnist

About Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin

Writer. Difference Maker. Entrepreneur. Author, Your Right To Write & Vertical Writing. Winner, 11 Writing Prizes.

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