Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Nothing Ventured; Nothing Gained

This post is for writers who dream of being published, but haven't had any luck or are overwhelmed with where to start. If writing doesn't interest you, you might should move along...unless you're needing a good nap.
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In 1990, I sent a letter to the editor at The Dallas Morning News. I was a young mother with strong opinions, and I thought my local newspaper would be the perfect outlet for whatever was bugging me or blessing me at the time. Never mind that hundreds of other readers had the same idea. I figured: Nothing ventured; nothing gained.

When my letter was selected for print, I was beyond thrilled. Although it was only three paragraphs long, seeing my words in a major newspaper (my newspaper) was a huge reward, and I determined it wouldn't be my last.

One letter led to another letter, and after almost a decade, I had a bushel of printed letters about a myriad of things. It felt good knowing my thoughts mattered in some small way.

Around 1997, the Letters to the Editor section started something called: The Dallas Morning News' Golden Pen Award. Here's how it worked:

At the end of each month, one printed letter was selected for clarity and writing style. It was then reprinted in the Sunday paper, along with a short blurb about the writer's accomplishment. I really wanted to win the award. Among other things, it would solidify my ability as a writer outside the music world. However, I didn't want to "write to win"that's never a good idea. Instead, I would continue expressing myself on occasion, as I always had, about topics that affected me.

Imagine my shock a few months later, when I opened Sunday's paper and saw that my latest letter had, indeed, won the Golden Pen Award. No telephone call. No written notification. But there it was, for all to see. I HAD WON!


Within a day or so, a delightful cup arrived in the mail. It was love at first sight, and you'd have thought I won the lottery. Fifteen years later, the cup still brings me cheer.

That's all well and good, but I'm really writing to tell you about what happened next.

Winning the Golden Pen Award was a defining moment in my writing journey. Not only did it give me that boost of confidence I needed, it propelled me to do something I had always dreamed of doing: Write an op-ed piece.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term "op-ed," it is abbreviated from opposite the editorial page (though often mistaken for opinion-editorial), and it is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper's editorial board. Undoubtedly, you've read umpteen op-eds in your lifetime, but maybe didn't know it. :-)

I was an avid reader of op-eds. I had my favorite writers, and not only did I follow them faithfully, I dreamed of being one of the them. Of seeing my words next to theirs. Of sharing my thoughts and having people "listen." For the first time in my life, I felt my dream was within reach.

Of course, writing a full-fledged column would require lots of research, editing and timemuch more than a letter did. And the competition?  Ah. The competition would be fierce. But no matter the odds, I had to pursue my passion. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.

I remember exactly where I was the day the Viewpoints Editor called to say that my article would be running in the Sunday paper, and could I please send him a personal photo.

I had seen this man's name in print for years, and here I was, speaking with him on the phone, listening to him say unbelievable things about my writing, and giving me goose bumps, head-to-toe.

It was surreal at best, and, needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink Saturday night. As soon as the paperboy threw the paper in the frontyard, I was out the door and all over it.

That was the first of many published op-eds, I'm happy to reportyears of op-eds, in fact. And it began a writer/editor relationship that I draw strength from even now. All because I wrote a letter to the editor, once upon a time, and had the hutzpah to mail it in.

If you're a writer with dreams, wondering where to start, why not give Letters to the Editor a try? Unlike op-eds (that can pay quite handsomely) there is no compensation for letters. However, it's an ideal place to find your voice, gain some confidence and see where the road will lead.

Your letter can be as brief as you like (that's the best part), and local editors are always looking for well-written copy (i.e., something they don't have to edit) from local people (that would be you) about hot topics of the day. If your letter is selected for print, you'll know pronto. No weeks of tortuous waiting.

I suggest subscribing to the newspaper you're targeting versus reading it online. You should adhere to their Writer's Guidelines, as well, which are generally located on the Letters to the Editor page.

I can't guarantee where your journey will take you, of course, but you'll never know if you don't get in the car and start driving. I sincerely hope you will. Nothing ventured; nothing gained. ♦

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