Recognizing Excellence: ASJA’s Annual Writing Awards

“WOW!” the email began, “what amazing stories!” Several other emails I’d just opened had said the same thing, just slightly different words. Each then continued along the lines of, “Any suggestions about how to pick the winner? Because I read one entry and think, this is it. Then I read the next one, and the next, and think – wait! These are wonderful, too!”

Emails from first-time judges of our annual ASJA Writing Awards always make me smile. Janine Latus and I co-chaired the awards this year, as we each have done in other years. Janine agrees with me when I say that invariably, all judges but especially the first-timers, say they’re “blown away” by the quality of the stories and books they’re seeing.

“Yep,” we write back, “terrific, aren’t they?” And then we add a dash of encouragement and practical advice, such as “You’ll do fine. As you read, write yourself little notes – what strikes you most about each. Talk with the other judges…”

What we don’t say, except laughing to each other, is: Did they really think choosing a winner would be easy?

Yet I do recognize their surprise. The first time I volunteered to judge the writing awards, I was assigned to the Trade category. I don’t write in that sphere, and I recall being a little disappointed at having to read stories I ordinarily wouldn’t see or seek out.

Then, like this year’s crop of new judges, I was knocked flat by the variety of topics and the high quality of the entries. I had done enough editing myself to know that “newbie” writers don’t produce that level of work.

It was more than a decade ago that I judged the Trade category. I still recall some of those stories.

One was about a man who had founded and built up a small company that makes grand pianos. The writer quietly let us see the caring and patient skill of individual workmen. As I read, it struck me that, had the writer himself not been equally skilled in his own trade, the story wouldn’t have grabbed my heart the way it did.

Some guys in a warehouse are shaping little pieces of wood, then attaching felt and wires. I’m there, standing beside them, and I’m tearing up at their devotion to the task. Something else is happening, too. With every paragraph, I grow more ashamed of my erstwhile prejudice. No. I’ll call it what it was. Snobbery. Because the stories hadn’t appeared in mainstream publications I knew, I didn’t anticipate they’d be every bit as good. Mea culpa. I should have.

Many of us in ASJA never meet one another in person. Even if we are blessed with a plethora of ASJA buddies, as I am, we may know the person but not their work.

When you read the awards entries, and especially the winning stories and books, you truly see us as the able professionals we are. The delightful evidence is indisputable.

It takes a fair amount of writing experience to qualify for ASJA. Once you’ve put in the time to build up your national-level clips or write a couple of books, the application itself takes some effort. It isn’t four minutes filling in a form. Then a membership committee reviews what you’ve accomplished. Not everyone makes it on the first try. 

So of course, whether it’s a blog piece, a science book for children, or a profile, it’s well-researched and well-written. I’m proud of my own writing. Because we’re linked together, I also get to be proud of yours.

For me, being in ASJA isn’t about “what I get out of it.” It’s about the writers standing next to me. Like Mama used to say, “birds of a feather flock together.”

Since we can’t have our usual awards ceremony this year, we’ve been celebrating our excellent writers by announcing the winners of ASJA’s annual Writing Awards online. Watch the ASJA Facebook page, the website, and Twitter, where we release one category per day, giving you time to relish the winners’ work, send them congratulations, and shower them with all of the social media attention they deserve.