How to (Nearly) Win a Pulitzer in 5 Steps

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as you probably know, was not awarded this year. The fiction panel nominated three books from a reading list of 300. (Can you imagine reading 300 books in a year?)

However, the Pulitzer board didn’t pick any of them. And we don’t know why. Were they not good enough? Were they not American enough? We don’t know. All we know is the Pulitzer Prize for fiction wasn’t awarded this year.

However, Michael Cunningham’s article on how the three Pulitzer nominees were chosen is a fascinating guide for how to angle for the Pulitzer.

If you want to win the Pulitzer, here’s how in five (not-so) easy steps:

1. Go Big

If you want to win a Pulitzer, Cunningham says go big:

[We agreed] we would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper.

Be ambitious. Write the story you don’t know if you have the skills to tell. Take more risks.

There’s nothing, of course, wrong with a small story. However, these judges decided a national prize deserves a country-sized story.

2. Discover Something New or Destroy Something Old

One of the jurors looked for stories where something “happened”:

Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.

Good stories require change. Great stories require colossal transformation. How much transformation do your characters go through from the beginning of your story to the end? How can you inflict more change upon them?

3. Make Your Reader Fall in Love

This might be beyond your control, but great books make their readers fall in love with them. The third juror was looking for just that:

Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book. She always had reasons for her devotions, as an astute reader would, but she was, to her credit, probably the most emotional one among us. Susan could fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person. Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees.

But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.

4. Write Beautifully

To win a Pulitzer, every sentence must be beautifully written, says Cunningham:

I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.

Of all of the criteria, this may be the piece most in your power. Beautiful writing requires only dogged editing, the willingness to write and rewrite a thousand times until each sentence is perfect. Or if not perfect, at least well written.

Are you willing to spend that much time with each sentence?

5. Do Magic

The last criteria, however, dissolves all the others:

Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

Great writing is, in other words, a mystery.

A list of tips like this is, to some extent, a foolish exercise. While you have control over much of your writing, there will always be pieces that escape your grasp, that will not be controlled by a mortal, that must be rendered unto God.

What do you think? Is it possible to intentionally write a prize winning novel? How would you go about doing it?


How do you practice magic? How do you experiment at making the reader fall in love? I’m not really sure. However, ambition can be practiced. Risk taking can be practiced. Beautiful writing can be practiced.

Today, write something grand, ambitious, risky. What story will show the most transformation? How can you write as beautifully as you have ever written?

Write for fifteen minutes, and when you’re finished, post your grand practice here in the comments.

And if your writing falls short of a Pulitzer, don’t worry. This is just practice. 😉

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • To me, the Pulitzer always seems like such a grand prize. I’m glad to finally get a peak behind the curtain. Considering some of my favorite winners, it totally makes sense, too!

  • I honestly believe that you may have the BEST intentions to write a prize-winning novel, but when it comes down to the finished product, there are so many factors that have played out between your intention to write, the creative process, the writing process, the editing process and finally handing it over to another subjective human being to read, that it’s impossible to determine whether your intended novel is prize-worthy. Sure, there are formulas for great fiction, but it’s true what you say: “there will always be pieces that escape your grasp, that will not be con­trolled by a mor­tal, that must be ren­dered unto God.”

    Conversely, you may also write something for the purpose of, say… I don’t know… fan fiction and it ends up being your big ticket to fame and fortune, no matter how terribly it’s written.

    The playing field is levelled.

    That’s why, as writers, we need to write for the sake of writing, entertaining, touching lives, fulfilling purpose. If you write it… and they will come.

    •  Eeek… grammar. Friday the 13th…

      If you write it… they will come.

    • Marianne

      I agree and I think it all does come down to some kind of magic that the writer is just a part of. The readers and editors respond, but the story – who it hits when it hits them – is where the spark is.  When the words the writer wrote, hit the reader’s eyes and brain in a certain way there is magic.  All we can do it do our very best and tell the story that comes up to our mind from wherever they are born.  I truly believe that but I still check for too many adverbs and follow other kind of dumb rules.  

  • Civilization has fallen. The great brass bell gracing the ivory tower has toppled down two thousand flights of history, each deafening ring undoing a hundred years of theory, intellect and certainty carved into each step.
    Finally, plunged back into the comforting arms of chaos, we the few, the last, the fortunate step out into the unshadowed sunlight. We, who will never go home again. We, the perpetual travelers never again to embrace our beloved in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. We, who will never again drop suitcases and coats inside our door and fold thankfully into the overstuffed armchair.
    I don’t exactly know what happened. I embarked on this transatlantic cruise on Wednesday, the 28th of May. When the ship arrived at port on the 25th of June the pier was in disarray, the stairs and luggage carts overthrown like children’s toys. Captain Crusoe had been unable to contact the coast guard or the port authority in several days. Without the help of a pilot and tug, Crusoe had drawn upon twenty years of skill and grit to white-knuckle the mammoth ship through the narrow channel and into the safety of the berth. I watched from the rail as we dodged the ghostly wreckage of once-grand luxury liners now upturned and abandoned in the steely waters.
    My fellow passengers discuss this mystery. None dare to mention one awful and gut-rending possibility: it’s all gone and we are the survivors.
    I will not shy away from it. We are survivors, though of what we cannot know.
    Aiden Knight, a young man of thirty, insists that we go in search of answers. His wife and children are out there somewhere, for him there is no option but to search for them.
    I can think of no one to search for. I left no one behind me when I embarked and expected no embrace on my return.

    • Yalí Noriega

      I wonder what happened and whether they were really the only survivors. I want to know more!!

      • Thanks Yalí, me too! I might write more this weekend…

    • Marianne

      This is really good. I hope you work further on this.   The writing is wonderful.  

    • BrooklynTim

      I like it, a grabber opening, feels like a sci-fi/fantasy/mystery in the making. The switch from past tense back to present   “I watched from the rail…My fellow passengers discuss this mystery” felt jarring (to me) like it wants a transition sentence to let me know we left “then” at the ship rail and are back in “now” with fellow passengers.

    • Yvette Carol

      Missaralee, good sturdy writing!

    • That’s good!  Written in a strong and self-assured voice.

    • Missaralee

      Thank you all for your generous comments. I love how warm and encouraging this practicing community is!

    • Deborah Kaufman

      I agree that the sentence, ” My fellow passengers discuss this mystery” seems stilted and jarring. But, other than that, this is a great story, and I seriously want to read it. I would buy this book. Really.

  • Salvatoretummolillo

    This is such an interesting topic. It seems to me that it can’t be something you want or strive for. People who write “great” novels write about what they want to read, or what is on their mind, and that topic and their voice speaks to millions.

    I don’t think it’s something you can intentionally do. I think it’s a lot of unknown luck.

    Likewise, great novels may not be great novels until rediscovered by another generation. Look at Poe. Look at Fitzgerald. Look at Faulkner.

    • Great points here, Salvatore. 

      I agree with you. Your examples are a bit off, though. Faulkner won two Pulitzers and a Nobel prize. Poe was a household name. And Fitzgerald was one of the most popular writers of his era. But still, The Great Gatsby didn’t win a Pulitzer. Neither did Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and so many other canonical works. So I think your point is still a good one.

  • It’s a shame none of the books were chosen to win the Pulitzer this year.

    #2 stands out. Change is a major theme in stories. Character development is considered the most common of change.

    But there’s something powerful about destruction in fiction, if handled in an hard-hitting way. I probably need to emphasize this change in the third book of my series, on both a wide level (with the world on the verge of being irreversibly changed) and on a small level (with the two protagonists).

    Maybe I should write a short story around “change”. Whatever it’s discovering something, or destroying something.

  • BrooklynTim

    (part of a piece written yesterday)
    In the next
    moment the squirrel flipped, landed at Mike’s feet and ran up his pants
    leg.  A startled eeek escaped from Mike and he swatted at the squirrel.  An instant later he let out a shrill owww, and his right hand flew straight
    up, the squirrel’s white incisors latched firmly onto Mike’s thumb.

    To Eddie the
    next few seconds seemed like forever.  Mike
    howled, “Get him off!  Get him off!  Dammit, Eddie, get him off!”  His arm flailed wildly, and the squirrel clung
    as if it were part of Mike’s arm.  Blood
    spurted and flew.  It landed in oval
    splats on Mike’s sneakers, face, and white T-shirt.

    “How?” shrieked
    Eddie scurrying to Mike’s side. 
    “What…?”  Mike’s blood landed on
    Eddie’s shirt and he gasped and froze at the sight of bright red splotches
    against the white.  An instant later the
    squirrel let go and disappeared up the tree. 
    Blood spurted from Mike’s thumb and the air around him smelled of rusty
    chains.  Stunned, Eddie grabbed Mike’s
    thrashing arm, gripped the thumb in his fist and squeezed.  His hands were now tainted red and felt as
    slippery as if he had rubbed salve over them.                                                                       xMy Thoughts on The Great Ones writing/rewriting: I ache to be the fly on the wall watching a Hemingway, a Poe, an O.Henry.  I want to watch their rough drafts emerge and read them, the roughs.  I want to watch them revise revise until they sit back and say “that’s a sentence”.  If I could watch them write, throw down the pen (keyboard in my case) and say in disgust, “that’s crap”, it would be closer to my writing process, and I would not continue to believe that the angels were dictating directly and solely to The Great Ones.

    • Marianne

      I like your thought on the great one writing/rewriting better than your story.  But I do like the story.  The smell of rusty chains is particularly good. Blood does smell very metallic to me.  

      • BrooklynTim

        Thank you, Marianne

    • Yvette Carol

      Totally visceral word usage Tim.

      • BrooklynTim

        Thanks, Yvette.

  • Yvette Carol

    My two cents? I don’t believe winning a Pulitzer can be practiced. And frankly I don’t think it should. Even having the end goal ‘of making money’ skews the muse somehow (although making money is greatly desired). However I do believe the craft of writing can be practiced. The disciplines and rigours of writing can be practiced. The backbone and sheer grit can be practiced. Falling down and getting back up can be practiced likewise. And perhaps most importantly, staying the course (demonstrating commitment to the muse) and maintaining your creative integrity needs to be practiced with all the spirit you can muster.
    Paraphrasing Romans 12:6-8: ‘God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well.’ So if God has given you…[an ability]…take the responsibility seriously!

    • I agree with what you say, but I also appreciated the opportunity to write something grand and ambitious and risky.  Committment to the muse is vital, because sometimes the muse is a stronger believer than I.

  • i wonder if magic can even be practiced. i am favoriting/starring this one (i am subscribed so it was sent directly to my inbox) i can’t wait to start writing again! (i’m a student writer… so hw has to come first unfortunately) 

  • I absolutely agree with the caveat to make something new or destroy something old. I recently published my debut novel with an Indie publisher, and it’s not selling well. I know it’s not because of the story; it’s because self-promotion is extremely difficult. With so many books being published every day, it’s hard to keep up!

    My novel is a historical romance. In no way is that different from others. I tried, however, to make it different in my own way. The protagonist is a Queen of a fictional island called the Kingdom of Cannary. I created many provinces and invented some of my own rules in the story.

    I also agree with making the reader fall in love. Whether they’re falling in love with the characters, the imagery, the writing, whatever. It’s very important. I pride myself on breathing life into stunning characters who love through impossible odds (at least, this is what I’ve been told by readers).

    Many thanks for the post, and maybe one day I’ll get there!

    Amy Croall
    Author of “A Cure for the Condition”
    Impossible Love with Real Characters

    •  Quick question Amy, how did you add all the extra info in your signature for this post?  Please let me know!

      wordswithletidelmar (at) gmail (dot) com


      • Hi Leti,

        I just typed them in manually 🙂 I don’t normally have a signature attached to my comments, so I’ve got to put them in each time.

        Hope this helped!

  • Great writing, like life, is a mystery.  This was an eye-opener.  I didn’t think there would be much forgiveness in areas if a novel excelled in others.  

    I have to agree that the best novels I have read involve colossal change, love, and an epic tale.  

  • Steph

    Haha…I could never even pretend to try to write a prize winning novel. Heck, the word “publish” alone gives me writer’s block! Writing is a purely selfish act for me. This site has been good in pushing me out of my snug and happy shell, though. I have learned that it is fun to share writing with supportive people like I have found here :-).

    I suppose it is possible for different personality types or for people with different motivations to aim to write a prize winner, though? And practice never hurts! I have no magic going on at this late hour, but if I think of something, I’ll have at it. Good points to keep in mind!

    • Marianne

      Hey Steph

      I’m with you on writing for the pleasure of it.  I don’t think you should say you could never write a prize winning novel though.  You are a good writer and your characters and settings are different and interesting.  I can see your Rex and Mags on the big screen now, and i do wish your book would come out so I can read the whole story.  I think sometimes people just need to wish for the prizes to keep writing.  I don’t even submit things so I know they won’t get published but sometimes I think about being published to motivate myself to write because although I really enjoy it, I don’t always “start up” easily.  Thoughts of fame and fortune can kind of prime the pump for me. And when I write something I like, I am always very pleased.  Also writers are daydreamers and praise and prizes are things to dream about.  

      • zo-zo

        This is exactly why I love this site!  What great encouragement from writers… This is a GREAT community where people are inspired, taught and united and I am SO SO happy I found it…  I was starting to go CRAZY in isolation…haha I think my husband is also VERY grateful for the site!

        • Marianne

          Me too!  My husband is glad.  He was getting tired of having to read all my stuff, and I was getting tired of his generic (although well intended remarks).  He reads but only non-fiction for the most part. 

          • Steph

            You guys are great, Zo-Zo & Marianne 🙂 . I’ve often thought it would be neat if there was a critique forum within this site for those of us with larger WIPs (hint hint Joe…). 

          • zo-zo

            Ha!!  I, being the wordie, have asked him to find adjectives for ‘nice’ with his response, but that wasn’t working so well… so now I practise with you guys and he can say ‘nice’.  Win – Win!!! 😉

          • That’s a great idea, Steph. I’m working on one for short stories, but you might have to wait a while for novels (mostly because I’m not actively writing a novel right now and I’m selfish like that). 

        • That’s hilarious. We should change our slogan to, “Saving marriages, one practice at a time.” 

          • Marianne

            Yeah you could become Dr. Joe, the marriage saver. 

          • zo-zo

            And you thought you majored in fiction!!!

  • We could make a new choice — the choice to band together and work, together, toward a day when people no longer feel compelled to make cold and fatal snap judgements about their fellow human beings.  A day when a person truly will not be judged and dismissed by the color of her skin or his odd looks or the way she talks or the length of his hair.

    We, as the human race, can outgrow our resentments if we so choose.  We could deal with and banish the root causes of why human beings go to war.  We could put an end to The Contest concerning who’s got the biggest, most luxurious house or who’s got the most extensive intelligence service or the strongest military.

    We could learn to actually empbrace our diversity of belief, of outlook, of sexual orientation.  We could choose to cease thinking of gender roles in ways anchored in cultural hegemonies that began to fade away a hundred years ago.  Yes, we can.  We can all learn, for it is learned behavior to tolerate one’s fellows who do not conform to the biases acquired in childhood or adolescence.

    We CAN all learn to live with one another, all of us on this magnificent planet, all of us whether we believe in the Christian God, the Islamic Allah, or no god at all.  The exclusion, hatred and killing over such matters is atavistic, peurile and unnecessary as well as tragic.

    We could, if we so determined, arrive at the much-postponed and imperative conclusion that no human being or corporation can actually own a piece of the earth, that our mother earth belongs to all the people, and will nurture and feed all of us as long as we respect her and nourish her in return, by stopping the pollution of her rivers and oceans and land and air with the effluvience and flotsam and jetsam of a bankrupt throw-away culture, the negative consequences of which scientists have been warning anyone who will listen for decades.

    We can, as the entirety of humanity, clean up our physical and emotional and spiritual act to the point that we all become able to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person without exception, and the value of all the other forms of life with which we share our world.  We CAN come together, all of us across the globe, and honestly esteem each other instead of sitting back in the privacy of our homes or social circles and quietly tearing each other to pieces in absentia — “Y’know, I just have a problem with . . . .”  That kind of thought and action CAN cease and be consigned to the dung-heap of our collective history where it belongs, and together we can rise much nearer to humanity’s greatest potential.

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  • Bruce Humphrey

    This is a small try at novelization of a real and sad event. I had just read (once again) about this sad story when I saw in the How to write a Novel post a comment mentioning how to win a Pulitzer, which I hadn’t read yet as I’m too new in this blog. 
    It is interesting that nowadays, with a quick internet search, you can get the weather of a month in 1969… This took me quite a bit more than 15 minutes.

    The Saddest Pulitzer

    Professor John Kennedy Toole drove his blue Chevy Chevelle on a country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi. He drove slowly, enjoying the views of the driest day of March, 1969. The ground of that country road was still slightly muddy after the thunderstorm from two days earlier, the 24th. He found the perfect spot on a side of the road. That spot called to his poetic sense. He got out of his car and could feel the chilly air. Coldest day in the last 2 weeks, proving right Charles’ Dickens immortal words “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade.”

    Opening the passenger’s seat the dreaded garden hose was there, looking spitefully at him, challenging him to dare, screaming that he was a coward and was going to run back to mommy. With shaky hands he caught the hose as one catches a poisonous snake. With decision he plunged one end of the hose into the still hot exhaust pipe, and the other end he perched inside the rear window. He climbed back into the car and sat, waiting patiently. Carbon monoxide poisoning was one of the best ways to die. CO2 replaces oxygen, as hemogoblin has a far greater affinity for CO2 than it has for O2. You feel dizzy, then you fall asleep and die. John could not think of a better way to die, and he had thought about dying quite a bit lately. Even then, his wit got the best of him. “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my father, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers”

    Whilst falling asleep he thought about “Dunces”, and how the world is so full of them. How could they not see the worth in his masterpiece, written by him 6 years earlier and painfully rewritten and edited for two years under the direction of  that Simon & Schuster editor he did not want to think about. How could they not see the wit, the great characterizations, the accents in the dialogue of the characters, the brilliant satire that was in the description of the city. His masterpiece was as good as James Agee’s “A Death in the Family”. Oh, how sad, to win a Pulitzer Price after your death. Never again will that happen. No one will ever read my masterpiece.

    A few hours later, the phone rang and Thelma Ducoine Thung had the feeling it was bad news even before answering it. Mothers know these things. She hadn’t heard about her brilliant but fragile son for two months. The call informed her of the suicide. But when has death been able to stop the love of a mother for her only child? Never, unless the reaper manages to kill both mother and son with the same evil swing of her scythe.

    In 1972 she got the strength to fulfill her son’s dream. Reverently taking the manuscript out of the dusty box where it lay dormant on top of the cedar armoire, she started submitting it for publication. The whole world would read, love and laugh with his masterpiece. In 1981, finally, a “Confederacy of Dunces” won, deservingly, the Pulitzer Price for fiction. The second time in history that it was given posthumously. John would have loved the irony.