ave you ever felt inspired to write about a certain topic, but felt too intimidated by your lack of knowledge or experience? Don’t let that stop you. People always say, “Write what you know.” I say, “Write what you want to know more about.”
When I first started learning about craft beer, I realized that the beer world was a great source of inspiration for stories. Yet when I read beer publications, I was intimidated by how much experience and knowledge these writers had. At first, I told myself, “There’s no way I can break into this field.” Then I realized no successful writer ever goes far with that attitude.
Think about it. When you started writing, were you an expert writer? Of course not. Everyone has to start somewhere. Any working writer knows a thing or two about discipline, which is why it’s possible for writers to school themselves on how to turn any hobby into a special writing niche.
Here are some tips on how to get started:
Figure out what you need to learn
Think of your education as grad school, but the only person that’s going to be giving you homework is you. Ask yourself these questions:
- How much do I know about my hobby?
- What do I need to learn more about?
Consider the following topics when figuring what you’ll need to learn in order to become an expert in your field.
History - Learning about the general history of any subject area will give you a good foundation and background in terms of understanding and writing about your niche. For example, learning about the history of beer has helped me understand how different styles of beer have progressed over the years.
The How To - Many hobbies will require you to learn or improve certain skills. With knitting, you’ll need to learn the technique of how to craft a sweater. If you’re a foodie, it might help to actually get your hands dirty in the kitchen. As a beer writer, I’m teaching myself how to homebrew. Having these techniques will prove to editors that you are not only knowledgeable about your niche, but you’re an expert in your niche.
When you’ve figured out the answers to the questions above, write them down. Consider these your personal goals to achieve. Then go out and start learning.
Stock up your learning library
As with any grad program, there are books that you’ll need to read or television or web shows that you should be watching. Depending on what type of knowledge you’re seeking, make a list of books and shows that might help further your education. Then, like any disciplined student, start working your way through the list.
Keep a journal
One great way to retain newly acquired knowledge is to write it down. One of the first things I wanted to learn was how to figure out the style of beer by simply tasting it. As a memorization technique, I bought a journal and wrote down the different beers I tasted along with my thoughts on their flavor profiles. I then compared my tasting notes to what the experts said defined each style of beer. Over time, I learned to get better at recognizing a style’s distinctive flavor profile.
Maintaining a journal is also a great way to remind yourself about the lessons you’ve learned along the way. When I forget something I’ve learned, I use my journal as a reference.
Find study groups
Do you have friends who share your interest? You don’t have to undergo your education all by yourself. Discussing your newfound knowledge with friends can be a great way to become familiar with the material.
Make a social event out of your education. Create a club or group, and have regular meetings where you can help each other increase your knowledge. If you don’t have friends to share your hobby with, there’s always existing groups to join—knitting circles, beer clubs, book clubs, food groups, and so on. If you can’t find an existing one, create one yourself.
Be active about your education
Gaining knowledge about a certain topic isn’t just about memorizing what’s in books or on television shows. It’s also about remaining as active in your hobby as possible. If you’re a film lover, continually go out and see the newest releases. If you’re a baker, participate in baking competitions or attend a baking class. I regularly attend beer pairing dinners, beer store openings, homebrewing events, and craft beer festivals.
Many hobbies have conferences, classes, and events built around connecting people with their shared interest. Constantly seek out these events because they are a great way to meet people in your field, increase your knowledge, and deepen your experience.
“...blogging about your education is a great way to practice writing about your subject.”
Turn your education into a writing assignment
While you’re cultivating your knowledge about your subject, blogging about your education is a great way to practice writing about your subject.
When I began my beer education, I wanted to figure out a way to start testing my beer writing skills. Jesse York, a personal friend and a professional beer writer, and I started a blog series called Beers in the Wild. I’d come up with an activity such as going out to eat at an Indian restaurant or cooking a three-course seafood dinner, and then Jesse would pair a beer to go along with the meal. I’d write about my experience, and Jesse would edit my writing and then give me tips on how I could improve it. While practicing my writing skills with an experienced beer expert, I also learned more about the art of food and beer pairings.
If you’re not lucky enough to already know an expert, blogging also makes your quest for knowledge public, which might help put you in touch with people that may be willing to give you some advice. As an added bonus, these writing samples can also act as clips to add your portfolio.
Learn your market
Subscribe to any newsletter, publication, or RSS feed from blogs or websites that feature your niche. These publications will be the places you’ll eventually pitch your work. It’s important to become familiar with the style, tone, and the type of topics these publications cover.
Regularly reading these publications also allows you to see which sections you can craft your articles for. Some magazines and websites have sections that are only covered by in-house staff, while other sections are covered exclusively by freelancers. It’s important to commit these to memory, so you can keep an eye out for the type of stories that will help you land your first assignment.
Figure out the type of articles you can write
Aim for assignments that will allow you to flaunt your writing skills, but will also match the knowledge you have. You might not want to write about the experience of running a marathon if you’ve never actually ran one, but there are always different ways you can approach a piece. While you may not be a marathon runner yourself, you can definitely interview someone who is.
A great first assignment is to write profiles about the experts in the field. People love talking about what they know best, and most people are very receptive to being interviewed. After I did the series on beer pairings, I decided to create a new series about women in the beer industry for The Beer Sessions, a web magazine that I’m now the co-editor of. This became the Women in Beer series. I was able to talk, meet, and learn how these amazing women succeeded in a mostly male-dominated industry. Best of all, they’ve become great contacts to have for future stories.
“Make it a goal to spend about twenty minutes every day on social media.”
Haunt social media outlets on a daily basis
There’s a reason why every company has a Facebook page, a blog, or a Twitter and LinkedIn account. It’s the easiest way to be updated on the latest news regarding your subject area.
Staying connected via social media also allows you to continually follow the movers and shakers in your niche, which can place you ahead of the game in terms of breaking news about emerging trends.
Make it a goal to spend about twenty minutes every day on social media. That way, you’ll get into the daily habit of keeping track of the latest news and studying how these topics are being covered in the media.
Internet your way into an original idea
One way to help you land an assignment in your niche is to make sure you find an original idea to write about. On days I’m not working on assignments or on a pitch, I’m looking for the next idea.
Like with social media, search engines are wonderful tools in terms of gathering information and looking up possible story ideas and sources. I use Google News search to do trend searches for beer. This allows me to remain informed of what’s happening all over the beer world. Twitter search hashtags are another great tool. For example, I’ll do a search on #craftbeer and comb through the results for a possible story.
Be aware that it’s an exercise that requires patience. You won’t necessarily find your next idea on the first or second page of those search results. Many times, I click through twenty web pages or more before I find a hidden gem of a story. But trust me, the more original your idea, the more likely you’ll land an assignment.
Figure out where to start pitching
People always say shoot for the stars, and I agree; but I also believe that you have to build a platform to get to the stars. To break into the bigger name print and web publications, you’ll have to have a few clips to prove that this niche is your writing specialty.
A great way to get some clips is to aim for smaller magazines, local publications, or start-up websites. These publications will be more willing to take a chance on a novice.
But once you build up that portfolio, you’ll be good to go. You’ll have the knowledge you need to pitch your next idea, the connections you require for sources, and the clips to prove that you really are the go-to expert for that niche assignment.
Celena Cipriaso is a nationally published writer whose work has appeared on CNN.com, The Root, Draft, and Bitch. She is the co-editor of TheBeerSessions.com and also regularly blogs for Skirt.com. In her former life, she was a writer’s assistant and writer for the ABC Television show, All My Children. Check out her work at celenacipriaso.com, follow her on Twitter @femmasterbrew, or read her blog at Skirt.com.
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