ew writers would exclude personal writing from their repertoire, but many have no idea how to turn their personal experiences into cold, hard cash. With a few easy pointers, though, you can learn how to mine your personal experiences and spark ideas from everyday life situations, which will yield plenty of opportunities to expand your sales.
Understanding the Writer’s Eye
The writer’s eye is simple, at least in concept. Essentially, it is the ability to look at any situation, no matter how personal, and see the salable potential in it. To understand exactly what I mean, here are a few examples of the writer’s eye at work:
- As you argue for the hundredth time with your teenage daughter about breaking curfew, you take an emotional step back and formulate ten ways to communicate with your teen to pitch to a parenting magazine.
- A close relative passes away after a long illness; later, you see the beauty in how he lived his life and write an essay for an anthology.
- Your favorite plant is eaten to the quick by the rampant deer in your neighborhood; but instead of focusing on what is lost, you research and come up with an article on how to animal-proof your plants.
Unfortunately, none of us is born with a writer’s eye. Instead, we have to develop, train, and hone it with each article, idea, success, or failure. The good news is that with a little practice and a little know-how, you can make the eye work for you.
Once you start looking at situations with article and essay potential in mind, you need to train yourself to see which situations hold the best potential. For me, these always include situations with the most emotions. Try these tips for the best results:
- Find Universal Situations: People respond to humor, sadness, tragedy, anger, and other tense situations because everyone experiences these emotions.
- Advice Sells: If you can translate your emotionally charged situations into advice, a learning moment, or a common bond with the reader, your sales will go up.
- Honesty Really is the Best Policy: Readers love true-to-life stories. If you can give an honest account of what the situation felt like and how you handled your situation, you will better connect with your readers.
Remember, simply relating your own experience isn’t enough; you have to make the leap to a general application in order to connect with your readers. Sure, that embarrassing first date is full of emotional potential; but unless you include your readers by sharing insights that might apply to others, you risk alienating them with a simple gossip piece.
Focusing the Eye
Now that you know what the writer’s eye is, it’s time to really focus in on everyday experiences. Sometimes, we think only our most extraordinary circumstances can become essays or articles, but that’s simply not true. Even the mundane can become fodder for articles, essays, and fiction if you pay attention to the right aspects.
Here are a few ways to turn those experiences into writing ideas:
Keep It Personal: Everything you do and experience is fair game for your writing. And if you are willing to write honestly about your intimate moments—like how you met your husband, the time your child ended up in the hospital, or your mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, you will gain an audience. Even work and travel experiences, though likely less emotionally charged, can be mined for article opportunities. A first-person account of an adventure vacation or a piece on how to deal with that annoying cubicle neighbor will be stronger because of your personal experiences.
Using Your Know-How: The writer’s eye also means using what you already know. Do you have degrees, hobbies, or professional work experience? Take a closer look and mine that knowledge for article potential.
- Have an art degree? Write a piece about collecting art, passing down knowledge to your son or daughter, or even decorating your home with quality pieces.
- Hobby scrapbooking can become an essay on the joys of looking back at your family photos.
- An unusual past job or experience might become an article or two for trade journals or even an essay on being unique.
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood: Don’t limit yourself to your own experiences; if you have close friends, neighbors, or acquaintances who are willing to share their stories with you, you can multiply your potential article sales by leaps and bounds. Why not interview your neighbor about his recent job layoff for an economic piece? Or talk to your mother-in-law about how she designed a new quilt or how she enjoys her volunteer work at the senior home?
No matter where you find your experiences, make sure you jot them down. Whether you take a few moments at the end of the day to log them into a computer file or carry a notebook to document as you go, writing down your ideas is important. Not only does cataloging ideas make them easier to find when you want to include examples in an article or essay, it can also help generate even more ideas. Simply seeing them in black and white adds to the focusing process.
Eying the Markets
You’re all set; you know what to look for, and you’ve amassed dozens of potential personal stories. Now what? Now you hone those experiences into salable articles.
Here’s a quick primer on how to do just that:
First, you have to find the right publication. Personal stories often lend themselves to essays, and the good news is that there are plenty of publications that buy personal essays.
- Anthologies: Look for Chicken Soup for the Soul, Travelers’ Tales, Seal Press anthologies, and others in this category. Many of these have changing needs and will alert you about upcoming topics and open submissions on their websites.
- Magazines: Women’s living, parenting, and even some literary magazines thrive on personal essays. But don’t count out business, men’s, and fitness magazines either. Many of them look for “How I Did It” pieces, where you can detail how you solved a particular problem—anything from losing weight to building a business.
- Newspapers: Have an abundance of personal anecdotes? If they fit a theme, pitch a column to a local newspaper or even a regional magazine.
- Websites: Many online publications are open to freelance essays. Even some news sites run an opinion piece based on personal experience.
Next, take a look at how you spin your pieces. If you really want to increase your sales, it’s important to spin your stories to fit the markets you’re pitching. After all, you wouldn’t expect a business magazine to publish your personal experience story about running a lemonade stand as a kid—unless you tie it in to firm business principles.
Watch for ways your experiences can be legitimately tied in to the topics magazines are looking for. Do you have a story about how your grandmother was almost scammed? Maybe it would work in a market looking for creative ways to keep the elderly safe and protected. A story about a rude clerk could become a piece about manners in America. The possibilities are endless if you’re willing to look beyond the initial story and get into the details that would apply to the general reader.
Finally, don’t discount those smaller ideas. Maybe your story isn’t large enough to become its own essay or article. Don’t worry; personal experiences are a great way to fill out an article and make it more interesting.
Try these tricks to include personal experiences:
- Story Openers: Use a snippet of a story as an opener to connect with readers. Once you have readers hooked, you can move on to the meat of your article and finish off with the conclusion to that personal starter.
- Examples: Sprinkle your experiences into a piece as examples to illustrate a point. This works well with your own experiences as well as with personal examples from interview subjects.
- Jumping Off Starters: Personal experiences make wonderful jumping off spots for fiction. Just remember to change names and details enough as you progress through your piece.
- Sidebars: Even more staid, information-based articles can benefit from a personal application in a sidebar. These simple, concise pieces can really illustrate a concept, provide anecdotal proof, or show your theory in practice to a reader.
No matter how you weave in your personal experiences, your writing will be richer for including a little of yourself. Readers thirst for honest experiences that teach a lesson, provide comic relief, or help them see their own lives in a different light.
Now the next time something funny, stressful, or interesting happens to you, look at it with your writer’s eye, jot it down, and think about how you can capitalize on the experience with an article, story, or essay that will pay you back with more than just the satisfaction of a lesson learned. Mine those experiences for the twists and truths that will garner you bylines and paychecks!
Lisa Tiffin is a freelance writer from Upstate New York. She has published many essays and articles based on personal experiences, including three Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies and in magazines like Grit, Twins, Homeschooling Today, Business Strategies, WritersWeekly.com, FundsForWriters, and many others. In addition to web content and business copy, she writes a weekly column for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, in which she almost always opens with a personal story. Visit her at http://www.lisatiffin.com/.
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