I never entered the Sir William Lyons Award. News didn't travel as fast in those far-off pre-internet days and I didn't hear about it, or maybe I just didn’t spot the opportunity quick enough. Either way, by the time I was ready to enter I was too old.
So I can’t tell you what it’s like to win the most prestigious award on offer to a budding motoring writer – you’d have to ask the likes of Richard Aucock or Alistair Weaver about that – but I can give you 10 tips to give your entry a better chance of winning.
1 Take the opportunity
You’ve already learned lesson one from my experience: enter now, while you can. For the Lyons award you have to be aged 17-23 on the closing date, October 1.
2 Read the instructions
Get hold of the entry form from the Guild of Motoring Writers’ website and read it through carefully. Several times. You need to understand exactly what the instructions tell you to do, and make sure you follow those instructions to the letter.
If you don’t there’s a chance your entry will be excluded – or at least it might not do the best possible job of showing what you can do.
3 Understand the judges
You’re asked to submit two articles. Read the instructions carefully and you can start to understand more about what the judges will be looking for. Journalism experience isn’t necessary, the entry form tells us, and “An ability to write well, and a keen interest in the subject, are more important.”
You need to think about how the material you supply will demonstrate your writing ability and your keen interest in motoring.
The instructions explain that the judging panel will comprise two motoring writers and a representative of Jaguar, so the people you have to impress will know about writing, they’ll know how difficult it can be finding good source material for your articles and they’ll understand the motor industry. They’re looking for “flair, style and journalistic potential.”
So your articles need to demonstrate how you’ve combined style and substance by working hard to find good sources, and paying close attention to how you write.
4 Interview beats overview
For your first article you have the choice of an interview with “a figure closely involved with motoring or motorsport” or an overview of “a legendary/topical individual” in motoring or motorsport. The interview is tougher to organize, but that’s the option I’d take.
If you can do a real interview with someone that’s always going to look more impressive than a “cuttings job” – a story assembled from previously-published material. Sources are the key to really good journalism, so I’d want to show I could find a good source and write up a good interview.
5 Focus on your topic
You have a choice of four subjects for your second article. Whichever you pick, make sure the article you write stays focussed on the topic you’ve been asked to write about – don’t go off at a tangent. And don't imagine that because your other article is based on an interview, this one shouldn't have any quotes in it: quotes add life and authority to a story. If you can get them, use them.
6 Pay attention to detail
For both articles, pay attention to the mechanics of writing. Your grammar and spelling and punctuation should be absolutely faultless. Yes, it’s dull and time-consuming, but you’re being asked to be taken seriously as a writer: getting basics like these wrong is a quick way into the reject pile.
7 Read and revise
Don't be satisfied with anything you write. Read your articles carefully, looking for every opportunity to remove a redundant word or turn a long-winded phrase into a crisp, short one. Don't try to use long words and clever constructions: keep your writing simple.
8 Present yourself well
First impressions count, so make sure your articles are presented in a neat, businesslike and easy-to-read style. (You might want to read my 10 rules for professional presentation). You'll note that the instructions demand that entries "should be printed with double-line spacing on A4 paper, using one side of the paper only".
9 Hit the deadline
It ought to go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: make sure your entry arrives before the deadline. Don't leave it to the last minute.
10 This is a beginning, not an end
Once you've entered, don't just sit and wait for someone to tell you that you've won. Get going on another project. Find someone else to interview, pitch article ideas to magazines and websites. Write often and you'll write better.
Keep yourself busy like this and it'll pay dividends later: if you don't win you'll stand a better chance next time round, and if you win you'll be better able to take advantage of the writing opportunities that might come your way .
And when you do win, you can come back and let me know what it feels like.
Sir William Lyons Award
Founded by William Lyons, the driving force behind Jaguar, in 1966 the award is run by the Guild of Motoring Writers and supported by Jaguar. It has become the competition every young motoring writer wants to win. Previous winners include David Vivian, Tim Pollard, Alistair Weaver, Richard Aucock and Piers Ward.
* And most of this advice applies to all sorts of other awards, exams, briefs for coursework and the like