How to Sift Your Own Stories—and Choose a Winner

When freelancer Douglas Fox examines his work in search of stories worth submitting to journalism competitions, he likes to focus on ones that left an impression on his own life.

“When I’m thinking about what story to submit (or whether to even submit one at all), I’m really looking for what story had the biggest impact on me, through the process of working on it,” he says. “I ask myself, did this story fundamentally change how I see the world? As I spent weeks or months working on the story, did I find myself completely, helplessly pulled into it more and more deeply?”

Fox’s argument for his introspective approach is twofold. First, if he found himself passionately pulled into a story, it’s likely that he found better material — better scenes, better historical anecdotes, better quotes — to include. There’s also a strong chance that he published a better story as a result. Second, if he was so taken by the process of researching the story, he suspects that readers might have a similar reaction to the finished product.

“When I look at it this way, there’s generally only one story — or at most two stories — in a year that really rise to that level,” Fox says. “Maybe it’s like getting to know the person who’s someday going to be your spouse. Hopefully you know them when you see them.”

It isn’t always so easy to spot a gem among the stories you’ve produced. Let’s be honest: The search for The One — whether it’s finding the right person after an endless number of Tinder dates or choosing a perfect story — can be downright painful.

I’ve had plenty of moments where it‘s felt impossible to be an unbiased judge of my own work. I can’t look past the missing interviews, the deleted paragraphs, the nitty-gritty descriptions that never quite met my satisfaction. Occasionally I’ll stare at two stories, unable to determine which is better.

We asked several award winners featured on Showcase to share the criteria they use to review their own work for contest entries. Here are the highlights.

Read the Fine Print

Alexandra Witze argues that you should always read contest guidelines, even if you have applied for the award time and time again. She argues that those guidelines have been carefully written to provide you with the best chance to win.

Lessons from the Past

Jane Qiu agrees that you should do your research: look for clues within the past award-winning stories themselves.

“Go through the work of the winners each year (I’d go back 3–5 years) and read them to try to get a better sense of what kind of work tends to be awarded,” she says. That will give you a flavor of the types of stories the judges are interested in.”

How NOT to Apply for a Writing Award

For more tips on how to apply for a writing award, see our post covering common mistakes.

One of a Kind

Because journalists often cover the same events, Carl Zimmer recommends submitting stories that are unique. “A story you find for yourself and make your own will be more likely to catch a judge’s eye,” he says.

Consider Your Audience

Although the membership of most judging panels is a closely guarded secret until the competition is over, it’s usually possible to determine their rough demographic. Are they composed of mostly scientists or journalists? If the former, Witze will select clips that include as much nerdy detail as possible. If the latter, she chooses stories that are more experimental.

Phone a Friend

If you’re really struggling between two or three favorite stories, ask a friend or even an editor for their top pick!


Fox also considers the response a story generated from his editor and his readers. He is careful to point out, though, that by readers he means not online commenters but the people who took the time to write emails.

Throw in a Little Variety

For contests that allow you to enter multiple stories, Witze chooses work that will show the breadth of her experience — perhaps including one long-form feature and one short news story, clips based on different topics, and even examples from different news organizations.

Just Do It!

“My number one advice for contests is just enter — always, always enter,” Witze says.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to know what will win. “So much depends on who the judges are, what crosses their desk, and what biases and backgrounds they bring to the judging process,” Witze says. “And you just never know what’s going to catch their attention.”

Finally, good luck! “I think journalism awards can be much more than the stroking of our ego,” Qiu says. “It can be a lifeline, especially for freelancers (and perhaps especially for someone like myself who has bucketloads of self-doubt and self-loathing).”

Shannon Hall, CASW Showcase’s project manager from 2016 to January 2020, is an award-winning freelance science journalist based in Colorado. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonWHall.