What Is The Pulitzer Prize? A Guide For Writers

The Pulitzer Prize is a life-changing award for many recipients. If you’re wondering, “what is the Pulitzer prize?” read our guide to find out.

The Pulitzer Prize is a highly-coveted literary award given to authors for their achievements in music, literature, online journalism, magazine journalism, and newspaper journalism. There are 22 prize categories. The award is named after Joseph Pulitzer, a publishing giant who passed away in 1917 and left instructions for the prize in his will. Today, the awards are given to winners by Columbia University. The Pulitzer Prize Board determines who will win the prizes each year. 

For many writers, winning a Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate accomplishment in writing and journalism. Joseph Pulitzer was known for his long-standing insistence that journalists commit to the truth rather than fall into the sensationalist writing he repeatedly saw in publications throughout his lifetime. For today’s writers, winning a Pulitzer means they’ve made an indelible mark in journalism, writing, or music, and other writers will remember their legacy for centuries. 

Here, we’ll explore the history of the Pulitzer Prize, how an author can enter to win the honor of a Pulitzer, current award categories, and some examples of prior Pulitzer-winning works.

The Start of the Pulitzer Prize

The start of the Pulitzer prize
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The prize started in 1917, as its provisions were established in Joseph Pulitzer’s will. As a newspaper publisher, Pulitzer recognized the importance of celebrating the art of writing and wanted to create a long-standing tradition that would push literary boundaries and encourage authors to continue developing their art.

Today, the award is administered by Columbia University, as Pulitzer left the university money to begin a journalism school. In his will, he left a quarter of a million dollars to Columbia to provide money for Pulitzer Prize winners and scholarships for journalism students. Pulitzer stated that he wanted four awards slated for journalism, four for letters and drama, four for traveling scholarships, and one for education. Pulitzer passed away in 1911, and the first prize was awarded six years later. Today, categories have broadened vastly and offer many different types of authors and artists the opportunity to be considered for the life-changing award.

Pulitzer Prize Categories

Pulitzer prize categories
Prizes awarded within the photography category include breaking news and feature

Current Pulitzer Prize Categories Include:

  • Journalism: Prizes awarded within the journalism category include breaking news, investigative, explanatory, local, national, international, and audio. The audio reporting prize was added to the journalism category in 2020 to recognize podcasts and other currently popular forms of audio journalism and art.
  • Writing: Prizes awarded within the writing category include feature and editorial.
  • Photography: Prizes awarded within the photography category include breaking news and feature.
  • Other: Prizes awarded within the other category include commentary, criticism, editorial cartooning, and public service.
  • Former: Prizes awarded in the former include beat reporting, correspondence, photography, and reporting.
  • Letters, Drama, and Music: Prizes awarded in the letters, drama, and music category include biography/autobiography, fiction, general nonfiction, history, poetry, drama, and music. While all Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for American works, the letters, drama, and music category also prefers to award prizes to works that deal with aspects of American life. In addition, the music prize can only be presented to an artist whose award-winning work had its first performance in the U.S. during the award year.

As many journalism outlets shifted to online publishing, the Pulitzer Prize Board shifted its requirements for winners in the categories of newspapers, magazines, and other news organizations. In 2007, the Board decided that online elements could be considered for all journalism categories, except photography. The Board also announced in 2007 that online-only works were eligible for Pulitzer consideration.

Submitting Work For Pulitzer Prize Consideration

Authors, journalists, and others interested in consideration for the Pulitzer Prize must submit their work for review. Judges do not want to see a cleaned-up version of the original work. Instead, authors must submit their work exactly how it was presented to the public. This allows the Board to judge work on its original artistic and musical impact. Part of Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy was that journalism and art should be a force used to tell people the truth. Judging work on how it was initially presented to the public allows the Pulitzer Prize Board to maintain the spirit of the award.

It’s simple for authors to submit their work online. It’s key to follow the strict guidelines the Pulitzer Prize Board set forth, as failure to do so could result in a release from consideration on a technicality. In addition, the Board requires that entrants stick to “the highest journalistic principles,” meaning it’s key that work is honest, transparent, and speaks as truthfully as possible.

The Pulitizer works to recognize writers who submit groundbreaking work that changes the way journalism is done and raises the standard for communicating information to the public. Both freelancers and salaried writers/musicians are eligible for Pulitizer Prize consideration as long as their work has been published by an acceptable source determined by the Prize Board.

Those interested in submitting their work for Pulitzer Prize consideration need to create an account on the entry website, then fill out an entry form. In addition, entrants must answer several questions about their work on the entry form, allowing the Prize Board to learn more about how and why the work was created. In the past, entry letters were required for consideration, but filling out the entry form now takes the place of writing an entry letter to the Board. After the entry form is complete, entrants must upload their submission. Supplemental materials may also be included with the submission. Entrants in the illustrated reporting, commentary, and photography prize categories must also include proof of publication with their entry.  

Pulitzer Prize Entry Rules

  • No person can make more than three entries for consideration per year (unless they’re part of a partnership with another author).
  • Authors can enter the same content in two categories (but not more than two).
  • Up to five authors or artists can be named in a team entry. If a team of staff members worked together to create an article or other type of work, they must submit the work as a staff entry.
  • Authors and photographers who submit work for consideration in the categories of public service, feature photography, breaking news photography, illustrated reporting and commentary, and public service may not submit more than 15 items in their entry package.
  • Authors and reporters who submit work for consideration in audio reporting, editorial writing, criticism, commentary, international reporting, national reporting, local reporting, explanatory reporting, investigative reporting, and breaking news reporting cannot submit more than seven items in their entry package.
  • Authors submitting to the feature writing category cannot submit more than five items in their entry package.
  • Entrants must include a biography and photo of themselves and any other journalists named in the entry package.
  • Each entrant must submit an online entry form and pay an entrance fee of $75.
  • Entrants must be United States citizens in all categories except for the journalism category. In this category, entrants can be citizens of any country. Still, the work they’re entering for consideration must have appeared in a regularly publishing news site in the U.S., a U.S. magazine, or a U.S. newspaper.

Entrants must adhere to strict journalistic standards to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize. According to the Pulitzer Prize Board, this means:

“The Board is committed to honoring work that exemplifies the longstanding ethics of the journalistic profession. These include a commitment to honesty with both readers and the subjects of our work. The best journalism is transparent about its sources and methods. The rigor and completeness of sourcing is an essential factor in judging the quality of submissions, whether it involves attribution in the text, footnotes or the citation of documents. These standards apply to all entrants regardless of the medium or form of the entries.”

Pulitzer Prize Winner Selection

A nominating jury works to select three finalists in each category. The nominating jury consists of three members who work to narrow down the pool of entrants to just three finalists. From these finalists, the members of the Prize Board (usually about 12 people) read and discuss each work. The Board began announcing finalists in 1980, a tradition that continues today. Most people on the Pulitzer Prize Board are academic and literary professionals who dedicate their lives to studying and discussing creative ventures. After the three works are discussed, the Board votes on a winner. 

Withholding Prizes: Why It Happens

To win a Pulitzer Prize, an author must win the majority of votes from the Pulitzer Prize Board. Prize selection rules do not require a consensus, so it’s ok if not all Board members agree on a winner. In addition to considering the merit of the writer or musician’s work, the Board also considers whether the work differs from what’s currently being done in the entrant’s field. Board members look for groundbreaking work that makes a difference. If the Board has a tied vote, the award may be withheld in that category for that year.

Examples of Pulitzer Prize-Winning Books

Some examples of Pulitzer Prize-winning books are well-known, while others are not. Recent books that have won the Pulitzer Prize include:

FAQs About What is the Pulitzer Prize

What does a Pulitzer Prize winner get?

For many writers, the beauty of winning a Pulitzer Prize is in the award itself. Their place is cemented in literary history, and for many, there is no shortage of people lining up to purchase their books, poetry, short story, or another form of writing. There are 22 Pulitzer Prize categories, and the winners of 21 of those categories are awarded $15,000 and a certificate stating their accomplishment. In addition, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service is awarded to a news organization, and the winning organization receives a gold medal. Sometimes, individuals are named as a part of the Public Service Pulitzer, but the prize is never awarded to a single person.

Is The Pulitzer Prize Better Than The Nobel?

The two awards are not the same, so it’s hard to say which one is “better.” The opinion of whether a Nobel Prize in Literature or a Pulitzer Prize is more prestigious is up to the people who are in the running for these awards. The Pulitzer Prize is awarded to an author for a single piece of work, while the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to recognize a body of work. Many people in literary and academic circles consider winning either award to be the achievement of a lifetime.

Who Are Some Famous Pulitzer Prize Winners?

Famous Pulitzer Prize winners include Charles Lindbergh, who won the Pulitzer Prize –Biography or Autobiography for The Spirit of St. Louis in 1954; Jonathan Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize–Drama for his 1994 show Rent, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won the Pulitzer Prize–Drama for his 2016 show Hamilton and Kendrick Lamar, who won the Pulitzer Prize-Music for his 2018 album DAMN.

Interested in reading more? Check out our article on “Is Journalism a Good Career?”

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