Write What You Know

When a new writer hears these words, they cringe. I did. The predominant thought running through my mind at the time: but I don’t know anything. Not anything exciting at any rate. But I was wrong and so are you! Everyone has a story to tell – the question is are you the one to tell it?

I’m a wife, a mother, and a teacher, but I’ve also challenged ‘the boys club’ playing and refereeing soccer, taught rock climbing, led youth canoe out-trips through Algonquin park, had dating relationships fail and succeed, been betrayed by a friend, overcome mild post traumatic stress disorder, moved to a town where I didn’t know one other person… The list goes on. I’ve experienced many things common to many people and so have you – and it’s all great material for the beginning writer. Personal experience articles are one of the easiest articles to write and place in the Christian market.

kids in backseat of car

Our family road trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario. 18 hours each way with three kids in a rental car. Ever wished you’d been better prepared with snacks, games and activities? I have. Sounds like an article to me!

Be Passionate

Choose a cause that you’re already passionate about whether it’s animal rights, starving children, battered women or the environment–and write about it. If it’s a cause you’re already interested in, research becomes easier and your passion for the topic or cause will shine through in your writing. I’ve had marketers tell me that if a writer isn’t passionate about the cause they’re promoting, they can’t sell it in articles or press releases. It’s true. I’m very passionate about social justice issues, so I’ve written about drug addiction, pornography addiction, human trafficking, child prostitution, reaching out to those serving jail sentences. What are you passionate about?

Have An Opinion

Is there a topic or cause that you make a point to stay abreast of? Whether it’s a specific non-profit’s work, or the latest developments in Canada’s prostitution laws, there are usually publications looking for people who can define the debate, accurately present both sides and give their opinions on the topic tailored to their audience.

Write From The Other Side

soldier in a trench writing letterWhen writing about a personal experience be sure to write from the other side of the experience. Work through the pain or the situation first, and write about how you overcame or survived the trial. Or, if it’s a situation that isn’t going away, like caring for a mentally handicapped child for instance, write about how you’re managing to stay positive or what helps you’ve found. If you can do this, you avoid the pitfalls of having your writing dismissed as being angry or bitter.

Is This A Blog Or An Article?

Some topics are better suited to a blog than a newspaper or magazine article. Be honest with yourself. If you want to rant, unless you can do it with a lot of wit and intelligence, or are willing to submit as a letter to the editor, you’re unlikely to find an editor to publish it unless you have a public platform. If you want to share personal stories or thoughts, that’s a blog. If you can pull out a few life lessons from those highs and lows and relate them to a large number of people you’ve got an article.

Make It Bite Size

Take your experience and narrow it down into a bite-size piece, while keeping your audience in mind. Otherwise the article will be too general, too broad, to actually benefit the reader. The power of personal experience is often in the specificity of the experience, but the lesson has wider appeal.

What personal experiences have you/would you like to write about?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Advertisements

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Part 2

Last week, Lisa let you into the twisted caverns of her mind to give you some idea-generating help. Today it’s my turn. Since we use some of the same methods, I won’t rehash what’s already been said. Instead, I’ll give you some new ideas and maybe a few of them will be the ones that turn out to be perfect for you.

What’s Your Problem?

Last year I sold an article to In Touch (the magazine for Charles Stanley’s ministry) based on my struggle to forgive the drunk driver who killed my best friend. We all like to think that our problems are unique or that we have it rougher than anyone else, but the truth is that at any moment, someone else is going through what you’re going through. Bring a little good out of those struggles by using them to both further your career and help others.

A few guidelines before you start:

  • Make sure you point out how your experience can help a wide audience of people. My article wasn’t meant to help only people who’d lost a loved one to a drunk driver; it was aimed at anyone who’d been deeply hurt and didn’t know how to forgive.
  • Come out the other side before you try to write about it. This not only gives you more objectivity, but it also allows you to offer potential solutions to the problem.
  • If it’s not a problem that you’re ever really “over,” find experts who can speak to how to deal with it long-term.
  • List the people you’ll mention (both directly and indirectly), and ensure that you can write without hurting their feelings or their reputation. If you’re not certain, ask someone you trust, and get an unbiased pair of eyes to read the article once you finish. Even when you’ve done your best, people might get offended. You can’t always prevent that, but exercise due diligence in the process.

Take Scissors to Your Local Newspaper

Lisa mentioned that the biggest problems with getting ideas from the news are that they’ve already been written about and the market can quickly become saturated. You’re probably wondering how you can possibly get ahead of the wave or find news-worthy ideas that no one else has caught on to yet. It sounds like a lot of work.

I’m a big fan of working smarter, not harder. (I think of the old cartoon DuckTales every time I say that.) One thing I like to do is go through my local paper with a pair of scissors. I divide up what I gather into two piles. The first pile is for “experts” that I might be able to use in a future story. This week I found a Christian counselor who has a list of qualifications and specializes in suicide. I felt like someone gave me a giant, calorie-free chocolate bar.

The second pile is for ideas that currently have a local slant, but which I might be able to make national. For example, if a local church is hosting an event and you can find other churches or organizations across the country mobilizing for the same cause, you might just have a story.

And don’t forget to skim the letters to the editor. Some of it will be very specific to your town, but the rest of it will give you insights into what people are worried and wondering about.

A local story won’t be read by the same number of people as a national story, especially if you live in a small town of 10,000 as I do. Yet someone else has done the work of discovery. All that’s left for you to do is to make it your own and tune it to the Christian market (unless you want to write for secular magazines and then it’s even easier for you).

Anniversaries and Annual Events

Having recently finished an article on the three lessons we can learn from giving something up for Lent, one source of ideas that I couldn’t pass up suggesting to you is anniversaries and annual events. The Haiti articles that Lisa and I are working on are another example of where we’ve benefitted from keeping in mind milestones.

Timing is everything when you pitch an anniversary or annual event. If possible, you need to know how far in advance a publication assigns articles. Because ChristianWeek is a newspaper, for example, you can pitch a story with a month lead time, but a magazine like The Lookout wants queries no less than six months in advance. Unlike with other stories, these articles need to be published as close to the date as possible. If you query too late and they have that issue planned already, they can’t just slot your story into the next issue the way they might with a less time-sensitive idea.

That said, if you’re pitching an annual event, editors are always in need of a fresh take on something they’ve had to deal with every year. For anniversaries, focus on the big numbers (like one year, ten years, or fifty years), and be ready to show why that anniversary will interest the readers of that particular publication.

Have any other great ideas you’d like to share? Leave a comment.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Writing From Personal Experience

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.

Finding stories

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.

Be fair…

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.

Be authentic

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.

A warning…

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.

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.