Writing Your Writing Award Entry

You’re a writer. You excel at your job. Everyone in the office pats you on the back when you’ve turned in an especially creative piece. Now, you’re ready to nominate that work for an award.

No problem, right?

You’re a writer – you’ve got writing this award entry sussed.

It’s open season for many major awards programs – the Silver and Bronze Anvils, Gold Quills, Bulldogs, and EX awards spring immediately to mind – and, if your office tends to get quiet or even go dark around the holiday season, this is the perfect time to start planning your entry and organizing supporting materials.

This February, along with dozens of my fellow pros across the United States and around the world, I’ll be judging the writing category for one of the professional communications organizations.

Judges volunteer their weekends, read each carefully compiled entry from cover to cover, make their assessment, then work with another judge who’s read through the same entry to ensure fair and objective scoring. If we don’t finish on the first weekend, we spend as many weekends as it takes.

Here are three things you might want to know about last year’s writing category (respecting, of course, the confidential nature of submissions and the judging process; all examples are composites):

  1. The field wasn’t as crowded as you might assume.
  2. At least half didn’t provide strategy or measurement.
  3. The communications projects were professionally written, but not especially creative; the entries got very creative covering up missing information, but were not especially well written.

What Does this Mean for You?

It’s worth the effort to submit good work
View those awards websites, and you’ll often see a photo of entries piled from floor to ceiling. This was not the case for us last year, and we were judging all English-language submissions (U.S., U.K., Canada, and India); it took a single Saturday, and a few entries were the only examples in their category.

Don’t assume your work will be buried by the competition. You can only win an award if you’ve entered and, in busy years, it’s worth noting that your competition may be too swamped to invest the time.

Being the only entry in a category doesn’t guarantee an award, though. Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable. My post, “Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work,” will get you prepped for this.

Take the time to complete every question on your entry (and never assume judges won’t spot what’s missing)
This is crucial because you’ll lose points for every unanswered question. The strategy and objectives you declare at the top of your entry must be backed up in the measurement section. You need to prove you achieved your strategy, and your objectives must be measurable. I discuss this in detail in the post, “Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season.” (This is a very long post; it guides you through the most important questions on an entry form with advice for writing a complete and compelling entry.)

Sometimes writers (not you, of course!) try to write their way around missing information and metrics. Trust me, we judges spot this every time. For one thing, measurement generally shows up numerically, while fudging an answer takes the form of words with lots of adverbs and adjectives thrown in.

In the day-to-day churn of producing content for websites, intranets, executive presentations, newsletters, press packets, and social media, we all run into cases where we’ve skimped on the up-front creation of strategy. Having a written strategy for your communications can pay you back, though, when it comes to measuring and proving the success of your program. And this is what you need to win awards.

Likewise, measurement for vehicles, such as internal newsletters, often amounts to intranet metrics and what’s in the Comments section. “Counting just adds things up and gets a total,” as Katie Delahaye Paine notes in Measure What Matters. “Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices.”

In the case of measurement that wins awards, you’ll need metrics that prove your objectives. Saying “300 employees read this article” is counting, but “85% of the target audience could identify our three messages in a survey that followed publication of the article” is measurement.

Preparing your entry allows you to spot the gaps. If you can overcome them – maybe send out an audience survey or gather feedback from key members of your target audience, since there’s still time – you’re well on your way to understanding how successful your strategy was to begin with and how your communication met its objectives.

What won’t be successful is writing an entry that claims that your editorial board or CEO loved your website content or that a speech received a standing ovation. These are not quantitative results, and without real metrics, your entry can’t compete.

Try to be objective about your work
I’m talking about the whole entry package here. If the communication you wrote was truly great, but there are holes in your entry where clear objectives and quantitative results should be, this is probably not the year for you.

The written materials I’ve seen over the years too often are serviceable, with writing suited to subject matter, but not necessarily anything that jumps out from the pack. And, I’m not talking about writing that stands on a chair and shouts, “LOOK AT ME, I’M BEING CLEVER WITH WORDS!” When you see the real deal, you know it.

More Quick Tips on Writing a Winning Entry

Pick a Consistent Style – And stick with it! Active voice, past tense, first person are all fine, but mixing and matching unsettles the reader. If you feel odd about praising your own work, know that you are not alone – many entries are submitted by the author. Odder still is reading an entry that suggests “we did this…we developed that…” only to find a single name listed under Resources.

Edit – Not just your entry, your original work. I’m not suggesting you cheat or pay for a whole print run just to fix a typo in a brochure. Many entries take the form of Word documents. Whether it’s a speech or a blog post, the Word draft may be the easiest or the only format available to someone outside your organization. You’d be amazed how many times judges find typos and grammatical errors in this type of entry. It’s worse when you’re presented with a screen grab of the blog, and can see that the copy was corrected before it was published. In other words, never enter a draft, and always assume that a document that was painstakingly edited five months ago has magically sprouted new errors in the meantime.

Take Advantage of Lists – Writers can feel obligated to use the entry form to showcase their writing. Bullets and lists seem like cheating. You have limited space on the entry: use (allowed) formatting to make your case clearly.

Share Themes – One project I worked on started out feeling like that movie “Apollo 13.” Much of our writing referenced the troubled moon mission. Another project adopted an inexpensive brand of wine with a twist-off cap as a kind of mascot after IT successfully got through integration testing; it was a metaphor for achieving a lot with limited resources. But, folks outside these project teams wouldn’t have understood those references, just as judges sometimes feel metaphors or phrases awkwardly leap out of writing entries. If your writing has references like this, add a sentence or two to your entry that helps the judge: “You’ll find references to [BLANK] throughout because that theme was part of our messaging.”

Tell a Story – Effective entries often weave a tale for the reader. For projects that play out over months rather than days or weeks, it’s fascinating to follow the trajectory from inception to launch to wrap-up. Remember, the judges are in the same profession, and we’re thrilled when you’ve spotted an unmet need, wordsmithed great messages, engaged your target audiences, and have the metrics to reflect that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Surprises – If you’ve been at this job long enough, you’ve encountered bumps in the road. It’s natural. If you can demonstrate that you responded to the unexpected using the same strategic approach, set new objectives, adjusted messaging, created new communications, and had measurable results, then write the whole story of your success. What you’ll show is that you’re strategic, not that there was a problem with your original plan.

Best of luck to you and your team this awards season!

P.S. For additional perspective, check out this terrific blog post, “How to write an awards entry that stands out,” from Econsultancy.