Personal experience articles are the easiest to break into a magazine with. My very first publishing credit was a personal experience article for Faith Today.
But which personal experiences are worth writing about? Which ones will editors publish? Good question. Your job as a writer is to figure out what makes a story unique and worth re-telling.
Write What You Know
Often new writers are told to ‘write what you know’ and that’s true. I’ve even heard, ‘write who you know’ in relation to writing fiction. But with personal experience articles, you need to ‘write what you’ve lived.’
Write to inform, to help, to advise, to share. People see value in the experiences of others.
There are stories in the everyday mundane parts of life, just as much as in the once-in-a-lifetime ones. Lessons can lurk anywhere and sneak up on you. Any mom with young children will tell you that a simple trip to the grocery store is never simple—and it can go from on track to derailed to regrettable in the time it takes to say ‘no’ to a toddler asking for candy.
Yesterday, I was sitting next to my son at a church-run kids program. We were watching a very unrehearsed story about Elijah and Elisha. My son turned to me and said, “I know this story. It’s in 1Kings.”
I was very proud of him in that moment. But while picking at a button on his shirt, he said in a quiet voice: “I wish I had a friend like Elisha.”
It broke my heart to watch my son yearn for something so simple as a friend, and not just any friend, but a godly friend who will stick with you through anything. Been there? Me too. Bingo! We have a story.
Look for the simple that’s universal at the same time.
Finding the lesson worth sharing…
How do you find the ‘nugget’ inside each story? Let’s consider the above story about my son. Ask yourself four questions:
- Does the story have emotional pull?
- Is this story easily related to?
- Does the story have take-away value?
- Is this a timeless or a timely article?
Who doesn’t feel for a lonely child? What parent doesn’t want to fix or solve their child’s problems? I think there’s several angles that an article could take with this story: a parenting article, a trusting God article for the parent or the child, a informational piece about how to introduce your child to new friends… you get the idea.
Finally, the last question I ask myself is more an issue of where do I sell it. Does this article have a timeless aspect to it? Could this article sit in your bathroom for a year and still have value, or is it more of a here and now article? That will help me choose where to pitch it.
Mentally going through these questions will help you determine the ‘lesson’ in each story, and where to pitch it.
How do you pitch it? That’s another blog post.
It’s extremely difficult to write a personal experience article with complete objectivity. I’m not sure you’re even supposed to. But be sure you’re fair! Be willing to share other points of view if it’s appropriate. Remember the focus of personal experience is on you, not what others have done to you, what you’d like to do to others, or anything else of that sort.
Share what you’ve learned, what you’ve taken away, and sprinkle in some advice on how to navigate that situation for a church, individuals, or families. Sometimes the power in personal experience is not in how you overcame a trial, but in how you failed. You must be willing to admit your own shortcomings, and share what you learned from that experience as well.
Being willing to ‘bleed’ on the paper (or screen as the case may be) is what makes personal experience articles so compelling. Let your audience see your pain—it makes your triumph or lesson that much more remarkable and memorable. Often the experiences we find hardest to share about are the ones God is asking you to write.
I would feel remiss in not sharing a couple of cautions about writing personal experience articles for the faith-based market. These days when something goes into print it’s often archived online—forever. Please be sure that whatever you publish, you’re okay with it being available to the whole world indefinitely. If you sell a story to a publication, be aware of whether they publish stories online also. Don’t publish something about yourself or someone else you’ll regret later—regardless of how true the situation or advice may be. The fallout from your article at home, at work, or at church, may be more than you’re prepared to handle.