When I was in college studying to become a magazine journalist, I was taught to write what I know. No matter whose class I took or the type of class, the professor always told the students the same thing: Write what you know. The caveat to this rule lay in its reverse: If you can’t write about what you know, know about what you write. In other words, become the expert on the topic.
Over the years, working as a professional journalist I’ve written many stories by learning about a variety of topics. I’ve written about everything from ascension to life insurance tax law and from retail store images to laser surgery. However, over the last few years, I’ve gone back to writing about what I k now. By this I mean writing about my life, and I’ve had quiet a bit of success writing personal essays for a variety of publications.
However, I’ve discovered that the key to writing a really good essay comes in writing not only about what I know but about what I don’t know. (Yes, I know I’ve contradicted my professors…) To do this, I think of myself as an Everywoman, someone just like everyone else with the same problems, questions, struggles, and goals. I consider myself not as unique and see most people as like me to some extent. I write from this assumption. Then, I submit these essays to publications whose readers are, well, pretty similar to me or who are interested in the topic at hand.
For example, I write a lot of personal essays on the topic of spirituality, Judaism and parenting. I then submit these to publications whose readers are struggling with issues related to spirituality, Judaism or parenting. I take an issue with which I’m struggling in my own life and choose this as the topic of an essay. I may not have the solution to my problem, at least not when I begin writing. I pose my issue, describing how I’m struggling with it, how it arose, why it’s important to me, how it’s affecting my life, or anything else about it that concerns me. I turn the issue over and over, and then I take a new approach. Rather than seeing it as a problem or obstacle, I see it as an opportunity – for personal growth, for relationship development, for communicating with someone, for moving through fear, for seeing someone or something in a different light, or whatever. In this way, I not only offer a solution to the issue to myself, but I offer it to others as well. And I do so from my own wisdom. In the process, I inspire and uplift my readers, who also realize that they, too, can find solutions to the problems in their life. If they are struggling with this particular problem, they now have some new ways to think about that issue or to deal with it.
My essay, When the One We Love Doesn’t Walk the Same Spiritual Path, which I wrote specifically for Interfaithfamily.com, provides good example of such an issue. It also shows you how you can take a subject and direct it to a certain market by specifically looking for a solution that appeals to those readers.
If I can’t come up with a solution or a new way of looking at the issue on my own, then I turn to someone who can. I find an expert and ask a few questions and I somehow weave this into my essay. I admit I didn’t have the answers and that I sought them out. I then might also write about how those answers or solutions panned out.
I often approach reported articles in this same fashion. I query editors as an Everywoman with an issue telling them that their readers must also be struggling with this same problem and, like me, must want some solutions. I can provide those solutions by interviewing two or three experts and providing the editor with a fabulous piece that provides the information I don’t personally have to offer. Editors tend to love this approach, and I land a lot of assignments this way. I wrote for Bay Area Parent Magazine, called The Competition Dilemma, that gives you a great example of this type of an approach to a reported article.
So, if you like writing personal essays or reported articles, try the Everyman/Everywoman approach and write not only about what you know but about what you don’t know as well. You’ll be surprised at the success you’ll have.
Note:I hope you enjoyed this post. Even though Write Nonfiction in November, the actual challenge, has ended for 2008, I committed to keeping the energy alive until next year with one post per month! This is Post #1…10 more to go until next year’s challenge begins again!