How NOT to apply for a writing award

Editor’s note: With submission deadlines for the NASW Science in Society Awards approaching fast, we asked awards co-chairs Alla Katsnelson and Amber Dance for their advice. Although this post is specific to NASW, much of their advice can be generalized to any awards program.

January is a great time for reflection. Gone are the stressors of late 2016 — the endless holiday potlucks and the flood of emails brimming with loud proclamations of the 10 Best Discoveries, or the 10 Biggest Events of the year. That makes it a great time to peruse your 2016 portfolio, pick out your best stories, and submit them to journalism competitions.

Still, you might be asking yourself whether you really should submit your work. And the answer is simple: Yes, you should! If you don’t enter, you can’t win. Plus, the very process of surveying a year’s worth of work and singling out the strongest stories helps you assess how you’ve spent your time last year and think through what you’d like to achieve next year.

If your work has anything to do with the sciences and their impact on society, we hope you’ll consider submitting it to the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) Science in Society Journalism Awards. The name describes the mandate of these awards — to recognize excellence in reporting that explores the impact of science on society. Submission is online, easy and free. The awards are judged in five categories: Books, Opinion, Science Reporting, Longform Science Reporting and Science Reporting for a Local or Regional Audience. Anyone can enter, whether a member of NASW or not. February 1 is the deadline.

As co-chairs of the NASW Awards Committee, we delight in the opportunity to read so many people’s best work. But every year, as we sort through a few hundred submissions, we encounter some common mistakes — some related to content issues, and others to technicalities — that land stories in the dreaded “disqualify” heap.

So we thought we’d take you through a close reading of the contest rules, mentioning some frequent boo-boos, to make sure that when you put your best foot forward for the NASW Science in Society Awards, you don’t trip over your own feet.

Content Issues:

  1. Anything goes, right? It’s a science-writing award, so I’m going to put in my best writing about science. Maybe the story about the inner workings of the atom. Or the one on DNA.

            We do love writing about science. But these are the Science in Society Awards. “Science” is one key word describing the topic of the entries we seek, and “society” is another, equally important one. On their own, the amazing computing advances that are changing the face of robotics don’t interest us that much — at least, not when we’ve got our judging hats on. But tell us how these amazing advances are creating robots that help caregivers take care of the elderly? Now we’re reading.

  1. It shouldn’t matter who’s reading my work. How about this great piece I wrote for kids? Or my fantastic scientific publication?

            Um, no. We’re looking for stories intended for adult, lay English speakers. There is certainly some great writing in magazines for kids and teens, but it’s outside our purview simply because it’s hard to compare to the adult stuff. And while it’s fine if scientists are a big part of your audience, leave the technical papers aside.

  1. One time this interesting thing happened to me …

The Opinion category is so named because we’re looking for you to express just that, an opinion. “Scientists are doing cancer research all wrong” works. “This is what happened to me when I received an experimental cancer treatment” — probably not so much. Unless, of course, you use the latter to clearly illustrate the former. But as a general rule, using the pronoun “I” or telling a personal story, alone, doesn’t make an opinion piece. So make sure to pick a piece that says, “I think…”

  1. I wrote a ton of stories on kinda the same thing — wahoo, I’ve got a series to enter!

In the Longform category, we accept submissions of single stories as well as of multiple stories produced as a series — generally a multipart investigation of some sort. What we don’t accept is a collection of multiple loosely related stories touching on a specific topic. We consider that simply having a beat.


  1. Making PDFs is so time-consuming! I’m just going to give them a link.

Sure, you can enter a story in the contest just by submitting a link. But beware. We’re always surprised by the number of entries we have to disqualify because the link takes us to an error page. That’s a major bummer, given that we can’t ask our judges to go hunting down your work. Make sure you check the link, and maybe even go crazy and double-check it, before hitting “submit.” And remember, our judges will need to access that story until we announce winners in the fall. if you have any doubts that the link will remain accessible for a few months, find a way to download or save the story, and send us a PDF instead.

  1. I write internationally, that counts, eh? Or what about this class assignment I wrote?

Strictly speaking, our rules require stories to have first been published or broadcast anywhere in North America, so welcome, US, Canadian and Mexican publications! And our take on that is fairly broad: We are happy to accept submissions published in outlets such as Aeon, Nature, and New Scientist, for example, because they have a large distribution here. But if your piece first ran in The New Zealand Herald or The Moscow Times, it’s probably a no-go, no matter how well-written and deeply reported it is. Similarly, if your piece actually wasn’t published at all — perhaps you wrote it for a journalism class assignment — then it is ineligible for submission. (Self-published books, or blog entries, are eligible, though; they just have to be available to readers somewhere, somehow.)

  1. Boy, you guys have a lot of categories. I’ll just toss my article in one and hope I picked right.

Sometimes, individual entrants or publications that submit the work of several writers in a single entry dump make mistakes in what goes where. For example, we occasionally get shorter pieces in the Longform pile. Sadly, those entries get tossed.

  1. Contests are like the lottery, right? Buying more lottery tickets means more chances to win, so I’ll enter early and often.

You might be tempted to enter all 15 of your favorite longform features this year, but please don’t! We think it’s not fair to other entrants, who make the effort to pick their single best story. Choose a single submission for any given category. That means the most you can submit each year is five stories. If a publication also submits your work on your behalf, we’ll ditch their submission and use yours. 

That said, it bears repeating: Do enter contests! Every year, when we call the winners to give them the good news, most are not only delighted but shocked to learn they won. You never know — maybe 2016 was your year.

Alla Katsnelson is a freelance science writer in Northampton, MA.

Amber Dance is a freelance science writer in Los Angeles. In 2010, she received the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for young science journalists.