How to win awards – with more than a little bit of luck

By April 7, 2016Public

The MJA is now accepting entries for its 2016 awards. Imagine the picture. Lots of members asking themselves: should I enter – or not? Endlessly humming and harring. Even agonising, with many, perhaps a majority, convincing themselves that it would be a waste of time. 

Please, please enter if you have eligible material. Don’t assume that it isn’t good enough (it was good enough to publish); or that a mass of Pulitzer-class entries will sideline you; or that tabloid writers are 100 to one outsiders.     

I say this as a possibly undeserving winner. For example, in I994 I took the top MJA prize. Next year the chair of the judging panel, that included me, remarked: “Well, I hope the entries are a better this year. They were pretty hopeless last year.” I was taken aback, but then I congratulated myself on my luck. I’d been pestered into entering. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of winning. But I had received the winner’s certificate and a big cheque.  Similarly, this could be your lucky year. (I have no foreknowledge of this year’s entries, but inevitably quality varies from year to year and between categories and besides which, you may have a Pulitzer blockbuster that sets you apart from the crowd.)

Conversely, in case you think I am being modest, I’ve have been surprised if I hadn’t been in the mix to win the 1994 Rosemary Goodchild Award (run by the Family Planning Association for the best published newspaper article about sexual health.) Some pieces just shout “award” and my piece was one of them. 

The first piece of its kind, I believe, it began: “Baby J is writ large in a new chapter in sexual politics. He will never know his father”. His 31-year-old mother had had artificial insemination by donor and did not feel the need of a man in her life to have a baby. Nearly 25 years on this doesn’t seem so unusual, but Baby J was born into a world that, for all the talk of sexual liberation, still perceived the single mother as a fallen woman. The Guardian published Baby J as a G2 cover story and the Daily Mail snapped up every single word the following day. (Alas, The Guardian had the copyright.)

One of the judges later told me that I had been the out and out winner. This was not because of the brilliance of my writing, but because of the strength of an idea that resonated with the news as more and more women were opting to have babies independent of traditional reproduction and family structures. The Lancet had just reported that three post menopausal women in Los Angeles had had babies. In South Africa, one Pat Anthony had given birth to triplets for her daughter who had been unable to carry them.  

Something different

Baby J may have been my best piece. It really, really was different, but anyone of a number of people could have got it before me – and here again I was lucky.  I picked it up during a chance encounter with a friend. 

Award judges are always looking for something different, but in the real world they don’t always find it – which may be why I took the MJA 1994 award. Again, I hope this will persuade you to put your best pieces forward. Many pieces meriting recognition are not even submitted. 

You can increase your chances of glory and a cheque if your entry is not only different but, like Baby J, highly topical. An appealing story and controversy also help. Anna’s story worked on every level. Believing that she would be able, and in some ways more able than many couples, to offer a stable, loving home to a child, she opted for insemination with the sperm of a man with fair skin and fair hair. Her fears that she would be condemned as immoral, irresponsible and selfish were right on all counts. She depended on state support. But some doctors and even churchmen praised DI mothers for their moral courage and responsibility. 

Broadsheet v tabloid

Are broadsheet entrants more likely to win? The odds used to heavily favour them, with, I believe, non-journalistic judges showing outrageous bias towards their own reading preferences. For example, I still feel that my piece, Heart Beaters, in Night and Day: The Mail on Sunday magazine was a victim of anti-tabloiditis in the 1998 Glaxo Wellcome ASBW Science Writers Awards. But at least I made the shortlist. 

Is anti-tabloiditis still virulent? Not, I believe, to the same extent. For example, my fellow judges and I in the 2016 Guild of Health Writers Awards unanimously singled out the Mirror’s Andrew Gregory for his outstanding world exclusive: Britain’s youngest organ donor. Like the Guild the MJA wants to recognise the the very best in tabloid and broadsheet journalism – and broadcast journalism. We need the right entries to make this happen.

How would my Baby J piece fare against Gregory’s youngest donor story? Probably not very well. Awards have always been a lottery –  but you need to be in it to win it.  Good luck! If I have persuaded you to enter and you win, I look forward to my ten per cent. 

MJA Awards deadline:  April 21. 

John Illman is a former MJA chair and a member of the executive committee. His new book, Handling the media: communication and presentation skills for healthcare professionals is available from  


John Illman

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Philippa Pigache says:

    What a really interesting and informative blog John, and from one who has both won and judged awards over more than 20 years.

    But I found it quite by accident, and apparently no one else has found it, or commented.

    This copy should be flagged to all those visiting our awards post. Many visit; only a few get round to entering. Maybe if they read what John writes, the would feel encouraged?

    Mind you anyone without 20:20 vision might have a problem reading the MJA website online. Is it my software, or does everyone else see the words in pale-blue spider-point type? Copy it over, and suddenly it is magnified when viewed on my pc. But up here it appears to me in 5pt.


  • Content Editor says:

    The most recent blog is always shown on the home page, as John’s blog was for a day or two, until another member posted and their blog pushed it off the front page.

    But yes, if you haven’t logged in for a while, it’s a good idea to click through to each section — news, awards, blogs, and so on — to access the most recent content, and any older posts that you might have missed.

    Also, you may, indeed have a software issue as the font size used on our pages is around 12pt from memory, and no other members have flagged this up as an issue.

    However, if you — or any other members — are having difficulty, most browswers will allow you to increase the size of displayed text. Here, for instance, is a URL address showing to how to do this on Microsoft Explorer

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