Contributed by Victoria Dinov, New Voters Communications Intern
That was my reaction when I found out my piece, “Who runs the world? Voters” had been published in the San Diego Union Tribune. Who would have thought that an almost-graduated student like myself would get to say, “Yeah, I was published in the Tribune. No big deal”? Certainly not me.
Being published in a major newspaper is perhaps every writer's dream, one that more often than not is shot down again and again. My piece itself was shuffled about and knocked aside many times before it found its home at the San Diego Union Tribune. So, I wondered, what really distinguished my piece from the rest?
There’s a list of qualities every major newspaper looks for in op-eds, but I would like to add one unofficial detail that will give your piece a better chance at hitting a home run: passion. When writing your op-ed, make sure you care about what you are writing. Show the readers why this topic matters. Help readers understand your perspective and see the value of your message. Demonstrate to them that your appreciation for the subject should translate into a similar passion within themselves.
Youth civic engagement has been a recent passion of mine as I have seen the incredible ways in which the voices of my peers have tangibly changed our world. My op-ed was a translation of this rising passion, beginning as soon as I jumped off of New Voters’ first national call. Inspired and invigorated by meeting so many peers who also cared about voting and youth civic engagement, I was determined to write something, even if it was not for a major newspaper. After finishing the first draft of my piece that night, I went to bed with a fuzzy bundle of excitement in my stomach. The next morning, I decided I wanted my piece to have a wider audience to hopefully influence my peers in the way I have recently been by other youth activists. With this goal in mind, I ventured to take my piece one step further: publication. I researched what characteristics mark a strong op-ed and began vigorously editing my draft. I also read a series of helpful tips and tricks for cultivating a personal voice as a writer, which can assist you in landing any op-ed in a major paper.
With New Voters at the forefront of my mission, I landed my first professional op-ed. If you are similarly passionate about New Voters and spreading the goals of New Voters, writing an op-ed for your nearby paper might just be the way for you to connect your ideas for youth engagement with the mission of New Voters. To get started, here are the tips that I used to edit my piece, and the ones that I think prove most valuable for youth writers:
Publishers and readers want to understand your message from the get-go. Being asked to read through paragraphs of fluff is sure to deter any reader or editor from reaching the meat of your paper due to sheer boredom. Tell us why you are writing, who you are writing for, and what your position is. Getting to the point is especially important now, as many publications have cut back on how much room they allocate to opinion pieces.
Publications want to hear a professional’s perspective regarding new medication or a youth activist’s perspective on current events. Your piece might be expertly written, but if it is outdated, overly discussed, or simply too mundane, it will most likely not be published. Excite the reader, grab their attention, and connect to current events: You’ll be sure to at least catch the paper’s eye.
Offer a Fresh Outlook
This tip is a no-brainer, but it’s also often overlooked. Hundreds of articles have been published about the effects of COVID-19 on family dynamics; thousands of others have been published regarding the coming 2020 elections. No one wants to read your regurgitated version of those pitches. What people, and editors, do want to read about is how COVID-19 affected your small business, or how the coming 2020 election is creating a rift in your family during holidays. It is important to emphasize what makes you unique, and why this story can only be told by you. Putting a new spin on any topic can make it all the more interesting, and an original outlook is what will prove that your piece and your message are worth telling.
Do Your Research
Doing your research means two different things: doing your written research and doing your media research. The first is fairly simple: If you are going to throw around numbers and statistics, make sure they are backed up by credible sources. Including loose ends in your work will not only detract from your message, but also is a sure way to get your piece completely shut down by editors.
Researching the local media is different. It entails knowing the publication and its readers. The publication might have already covered the effects of COVID-19 on Olympic athletes last month, so unless you have a totally fresh take, don’t try to publish your own piece regarding this topic. You can always find a different publication! Also, research the publication and make sure your piece fits within its framework. Try not to send your piece about youth civic engagement to a sports paper (unless there are some very clear connections like building a nearby stadium using taxpayer dollars). When submitting your piece, make sure to understand that you are looking for the right publication for your piece rather than trying to write a piece to fit a particular publication. You want to make sure to preserve your voice and your message and then find a paper that will highlight your ideas to the fullest extent.
Preserve Your Voice
Writing an Op-Ed is all about showing the reader why you care and doing so in a way that they can connect to. What are your feelings regarding this topic, and why should readers share these emotions? Writing an op-ed gives you a chance to voice your feelings: raw, bitter, joyous, enlivened. Your energy often leaves the page and imprints itself on the readers. Give readers the tools to translate this energy into action, and you are sure to at least leave an impression on editors.
Connect to New Voters
Now that you have these skills under your belt, you can use them to promote the mission of New Voters: growing youth civic engagement through increased voter registration and political action. Write about why engagement is important and offer first hand examples. Stimulate peers to vote by creating a personal narrative about the benefits of youth voting. Shock readers by emphasizing the low youth voting rates, and explaining how they affect our democracy. My publication was a call to action, proving to youth why their votes really do matter and hopefully uplifting their voices through voting in 2020 and beyond.
When writing your piece, combine elements of suspense and urgency while also informing the reader of the facts about youth voting. Make it your mission to impact at least one youth reader to register to vote, or influence one older adult to align with the mission of New Voters to uplift the youth vote. The ultimate goal of New Voters is to register more people to vote, and hopefully represent the youth demographic to a fuller extent in elections to come. For publishers, writing a piece about voting from the youth perspective is a refreshing twist on the otherwise stale voting articles with which readers are bombarded every election year.
How to Publish
When your final draft is 100% complete, look up the editors for a few local newspapers (print and electronic) and send them an email of your piece. In the email, briefly highlight your background and its connections to the piece. Tell the editor about New Voters and the wonderful work we do. Emphasize your firsthand experience as a youth voter (or pre-registered almost voter). Tell the editor why they should include your piece in their publication.
Do not be afraid to seem firm. Your piece is the prize to be won, so sell it hard. Make the editor take a step back and think to themself: Wow, this kid has something interesting to say. Once the editor has this mindset, your piece will become invaluable as a youth-generated narrative.
Also, do not be afraid to be rejected. My piece was rejected by five publications before the San Diego Union Tribune published it — five publications that are smaller than the Tribune. Upon rejection, do not be discouraged: Just email your piece to the next batch of publications in your area.
My last bit of advice is to create a master list of all publications in your area and rank them in order of most to least influential. Then, find the names of all of the editors to personalize your message. When reaching out, shoot for the stars first and slowly work your way down the list. If you hit the bottom and have still not been published, do not worry! There are thousands of papers and publications out there, and one is sure to be the right fit for your piece. Additionally, many school publications appreciate new topics, and voting just might be the next hot topic for your school in the coming year.
So: Take these tips with a grain of salt and start writing! Remember that if you write to inspire, surely someone will be moved.