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What’s Your Jawn?: A Young Journalist’s Guide to Interview-Based Writing

By Amy Marcus

VoteThatJawn’s Mission: Using the power of youth voice and connection, #VoteThatJawn aims to bring 18-year-olds and other first-time voters to the polls—beginning a process toward full civic engagement—not just for a charismatic candidate, but to advocate for youth issues, youth safety, agency, and inclusion.

In a few paragraphs, we’re going to invite you to write a blog for But before that, because we know that young people take in information all sorts of ways, we’re going to invite you, right now to do two things:

  1. Follow @VoteThatJawn on Instagram. Yes, we want followers! But we hope that this IG account will give you a look at our information delivery system: how one youth-led organization is combining information and graphics to communicate important non-partisan messages.

  2. Participate in what we do, bringing youth in to read and learn, by making a short PSA on your phone now. It’s a video of you saying: “Vote That Jawn!” Drop it here, and in a couple weeks, come look for yourself on our website banner!

Now on to the summer J-school:

Objective and assignment: We want you to write about your jawn—that issue that ignites a fire in you and can or could or will drive you to the polls. We want to hear your voice, and we want you to support it with the work of someone in the greater Philadelphia community. Maybe a local legislator is pushing for change in Harrisburg or an activist is leading the community charge right here at home. Maybe a researcher or professional could provide the insight you need to write a spectacular piece. Whoever you choose, we’ll show you how to conduct an interview and transform it into a great piece of writing.

Interview-based writing basics:

  1. Finding a subject and making contact

  • This begins with good research. Find someone whose expertise aligns with your passion. Look for local politicians, activists, professors or community leaders. Philadelphia has a wealth of accomplished and passionate people who would be happy to talk to you.

    • Use Google and social media to find the people in Philadelphia who are experts in your topic!

    • You would be surprised at how many people actually want to talk to you about their work! People love talking to students in particular about their passions, especially when yours align.

      • On the other hand, don’t be discouraged if someone declines your request or simply doesn’t reply. Have a backup plan! There is nothing wrong with interviewing more than one person even if you only plan to use one subject in your final piece.

    • Many websites have contact or media pages where you can find contact information like office phone numbers or email addresses.

Here’s an example: You may have heard that PA schools are funded unequally across the state. When you Google the phrase “Funding PA schools fairly,” you’ll see lots of entries. Near the top, an organization called PCCY—Public Citizens for Children and Youth—has published a full website, complete with facts, and where the facts come from, Fact Sheet: PA’s Fair Funding Formula. After you click on lots of other articles and sites, you see that PCCY’s is far more comprehensive. Of course, you’d want to check out its staff and board. Are any of them associated with groups that have sneaky agendas aside from the health and welfare of children? Any whackos, to speak plainly?

No? Phew. So now, you can decide where your passion intersects with some of their research. And then, find who is it whose quotes in that area speak to you.

  • Persistence is key! Once you’ve chosen someone to be the center of your piece, don’t be afraid to send multiple emails, call if you find a phone number or even reach out over social media.

    • Make your initial approach via email when possible. In your email, introduce yourself as a local student and give a brief description of your assignment and your passion for the issue. Tell your subject why you believe their insight to be essential to your piece!

2. Preparation

  • Draft questions! This is one of the most important steps of the process. What is it you want to learn? Let’s go back to Fair Funding for schools. Do you want to know what really fair funding would look like? What states have it? Or are you more interested in asking how youth can advocate for change? Or how much it would cost if every school, urban and rural, were funded equally with the best-funded suburban schools? Or do you want to know who voted for fair funding in our PA legislature, and who did not? Each of these is a starting, driving question that will direct your piece toward a different thesis and different follow-up questions.

    • Think about what you want to say and what you’re hoping your subject will say too. Draft questions that will shape your piece and allow the words to come flowing out of your mind when you sit down to write.

3. Interviewing

  • Be prompt! Due to COVID-19, most of you will conduct interviews over the phone. Make sure to call your subject exactly at the agreed upon time. Try to avoid email interviews. Without the ability to listen to how someone is saying something, or to follow up in real time for clarifications and challenge assertions that sound off, email interviews can be flat and extremely frustrating. You should use them only as a last resort.

  • Record your interview. But make sure to ask first. In Pennsylvania, it’s a crime to record a conversation without the consent of both parties involved.

    • How to ask: “Is it all right if I record this conversation? I want to make sure that I don’t misquote you or misrepresent the work that you do.”

    • You can record with a digital recorder, free computer software, or simply take a video of yourself on the phone with speaker phone on.

    • Your conversation is assumed to be on the record. Your subject may revoke this at any time simply by stating that they want something to be off the record before they say it. You can also push back by asking them to keep their remarks on the record. It’s hard to un-hear something. If they won’t tell you for your story, why are they telling you at all? Often, subjects can be convinced to keep their comments on the record. If you do agree to keep something off the record, however, you must stop recording, and you cannot use that material in your piece.

  • Don’t be afraid to stray from your prepared questions. If your subject raises something interesting that you hadn’t thought about, ask follow-up questions! Remember that this is a conversation. Use your prepared questions as a guide to avoid any awkward silences and to make sure you get enough material to craft your piece.

4. Pre-writing

  • Transcribe your interview! This part is tedious and time-consuming, true, but it will let you see your interview on paper. From here you can begin to pull out quotes from your subject that work well with what you want to say!

  • Or, if you are nervous about the whole recording process, here’s what VoteThatJawn’s Editor Rebecca Pepper Sinkler says:

"You can also just take down what the person tells you, as if you were a journalist taking notes. It won't be perfect, but you will have a rough draft of the conversation and then refer to the recorded version to get exact wording. Beats having to transcribe, which is really kind of a waste of time since lots of the comments aren't worth using."

  • Put your driving question at the top of the page and make an outline based on the quotes you’ve chosen to use. This will help you shape your own thoughts and words.

5. Writing

  • Use your subject’s thoughts to shape your piece. Let their expertise amplify your passion.

  • Try to avoid the first person (“I” voice). Make your piece about the issue and the expert. Your passion and voice will shine even in the third person.

  • Keep it concise! We’re looking for about 400-600 words.

If you have questions or want to discuss story ideas, feel free to email Associate Editor Sara Torres-Albert at!

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