Great Writing Requires an Investment of Time and Effort
One judge’s takeaway from our Azbee Awards of Excellence competition

The following is an open letter from one of our veteran Azbee Awards judges to the wider membership and Azbee entrants, both recognizing the collective talent found across our association as well as offering constructive feedback. All thoughts and opinions expressed are his own.

It’s been a privilege to judge the stellar entries in the 2022 Azbee Awards of Excellence, virtually all of them examples of good, solid, professional business journalism. I learned way more about various business niches and professional sectors that you can imagine, and thanks to every entrant for that.

As business journalists, that’s what we do best: inform our audiences with thoughtful, accurate, well- sourced, well-packaged information they need to know.

What we don’t do so well is bring people and personalities to life. In too many feature stories that are otherwise information-rich, our sources tend to be faceless, two-dimensional mouthpieces useful only as quote machines to spike up the copy. The people we interview, the experts we rely on, the authorities in our industries or professions whose knowledge enlightens our stories need to be portrayed as the complex, interesting and often controversial characters they are.

More crucially, we’re often just lazy. I hate to say it, but it’s true.

We don’t do the digging it takes to extract valuable nuggets buried in some dense piece of legislation. We don’t invest the time it takes or provide a concise summary of the backstory to an issue under scrutiny. We offer links to some other article, rather than summarizing the relevant information in a box or sidebar.

I’m reminded of that reality every year when coaching middle school Speech and Debate students as they struggle to write their opening statement or compose an editorial commentary. “Good writing don’t come easy,” I tell them. To which they gleefully leap to correct my grammar, never realizing why I deliberately phrased my comment so inelegantly.

I ask them to consider the movies they all love and remind them that a 60-second fight scene or car chase takes days, sometimes weeks, of staging, filming and editing, followed by hundreds of hours of CGI created by a multiple teams of programmers.

Writing — great writing — requires a similar investment of time and effort.

Too often we’re unwilling to put in the hours it takes to delve through documents, to track down data, to patiently coax our sources until we finally get them to say something meaningful.

Granted, we’ve all become members of Instant Gratification Nation, but the back end work it takes to provide audiences with concise, compelling, creative content vital to their livelihoods cannot be shorted.

Like all the other Azbee judges, I put a ton of time into reviewing the contest submissions, but it was worth it to feel that surge of pride knowing I’m a member of an amazing association of talented writers and editors who also happen to be experts on some incredibly complex subjects.

Plainly stated, we’re the “rocket surgeons” of the journalistic profession.

But at the same time, we must never lose sight of the challenge to educate, as well as elucidate our audiences; to inspire, as well as inform; to debate the merits, as well as the morality, of the business trends we document. As journalists, we need to address not just the needs of whatever narrow niche our publications cover but also speak to the issues that matter within the larger communities where we live and work.

There was so much to appreciate about the stories I reviewed and judged in this year’s contest. As noted above, however, there’s also more that all of us editors and writers coulda — and shoulda — got done.

Feel free to correct me on the grammar.

But not on the message.

Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy has served several decades as a writer, editor and commentator for leading publishers in New York City, Cleveland, Chicago and Phoenix, including editor-in-chief of business magazines in health care, food processing and licensed apparel. He is a long-time member of ASBPE and author of several books, including his latest: “Taking It to the Top,” the definitive guide for coaches of competitive Speech teams.

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.