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Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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Writing (and Selling) Personal Experience Articles

by Moira Allen

While I was editor of a national pet magazine, my desk was swamped with "personal experience" articles -- accounts of some funny, moving, or tragic event in the author's life. And every day, the vast majority of those articles went straight to the rejection pile.

It wasn't because they were poorly written. Many were quite good, and every bit as funny or moving as they claimed to be. We simply could not use them.

Editors everywhere face the same difficulty. Personal experience articles often make up 75% or more of a typical magazine's unsolicited submissions (and often are the reason why magazines stop accepting such submissions altogether). Yet they are the least likely to be accepted.

The reason is that typical personal experience pieces are articles about the author. What editors are looking for, however, is articles about the reader.

Look at the table of contents of any information-oriented magazine, and you'll see what I mean. Note how many titles include phrases like "how to" or "how you can." Editors are in search of articles hat will help readers improve their lives, relationships, skills, or knowledge. For most magazines, such "service" pieces make up 80% to 90% of the editorial content.

That can create some pretty tough odds. For example, if an editor could purchase ten articles per month out of 100 submissions, a personal experience piece might have a 1-in-75 chance of acceptance -- while a service article's chances could be as high as 9-in-25. (Of course, the reality is far worse: Editors receive far more than 100 articles per month, and may purchase fewer than 10.)

But you can beat those odds. You can lift your personal experience article out of the slush pile by offering an editor the best of both worlds: A personalized service piece. To do this, you must ask yourself how your experience relates to the reader. For example:

  • Is this an experience the reader might wish to share or enjoy?
  • Is this an experience from which the reader can learn or benefit?
  • Is this an experience the reader might wish to avoid?
  • Is this an experience that will help the reader cope with difficulty?

Experiences to Share

Have you had an experience that others might wish to share? Perhaps you've achieved a success or a goal, or simply had a good time. Would others want to do the same? If the answer is yes, you're in the ideal position to tell them how.

For example, perhaps you've just come back from a great vacation. So tell us about it: Most travel articles are personal experience pieces at heart. But they are written in such a way as to become the reader's experience as well -- either vicariously, or by enabling the reader to duplicate the experience.

If your vacation involved a fascinating destination, tell us how to get there, what to see, where to find the best food and lodgings, or what to expect from the culture or environment. Tailor your account to the audience you're trying to reach: Will your readers want to know about the most challenging hiking trails, the best restaurants, or how to get a bargain in the shops or bazaars? Should your article focus on little-known details of an exotic culture, or the nuts and bolts of making travel and hotel arrangements?

Focusing on the service aspects of your article broadens the market dramatically. That story of your "best camping trip ever" can discuss equipment and supplies for one magazine, the "ten best campgrounds" in a particular region for another, and how to get the kids unplugged from their Gameboys and Walkmans and into the great outdoors for a third. In short, you should be asking not only how the reader can benefit from your experience, but how many different types of readers might be able to benefit.

Keep in mind that your experience should be one that a reader would like to share in the future, not one that he or she has already shared. I can't begin to estimate how many "my first puppy" articles I've rejected, all written from the assumption that "this magazine is about dogs, I just got a dog, therefore readers will identify with my experience." Identification alone is not enough: Readers aren't interested in articles about things they've already done. They are interested in new experiences, in things they might want to do -- if only you could show them how!

Experiences that Enrich

If any single focus dominates the article market, it is "how to improve your life." Self-improvement themes pervade magazines of every description: How to improve your health, well-being, inner self, relationships, careers, skills, homes, hobbies. Nothing attracts a reader like the promise that an article will make life better.

To tap into this market, explore areas in your life that you have made better. Topics may range from the deeply personal (overcoming a fear, meeting a challenge) to the seemingly trivial (brightening your work area with potted plants). Any improvement that you've made in your own life could be an improvement someone else would like to emulate.

Suppose, for example, that you've recently quit the corporate rat-race to become a full-time freelance writer. Presumably, that was a quality-of-life decision (I've never read an article about someone joining the corporate world to improve their quality of life!). Your article could tell us not only why you did it, but how -- including the advantages and disadvantages of such a decision.

On the positive side, has your decision led to more quality time with family members, more freedom to control one's life and destiny, more opportunities to enjoy the "little things" like gardens and sunsets and the freedom to linger over the morning's coffee and bagel? On the down-side, can you help the reader cope with the difficulties involved in developing good work habits without the incentive of external deadlines, the lack of social interaction and "office lunches," the anxiety of having no secure paycheck or benefits? Such an article could serve the needs not only of writers but anyone who is self-employed or a telecommuter.

Self-improvement articles don't necessarily have to be based on life-changing experiences. In many cases, an area of your life that hasn't changed can also be the basis of an excellent article. For example, is your relationship with your spouse running smoothly, with few hassles or arguments? Are your children well-behaved, getting good grades and staying off drugs?

It's easy to overlook areas of our lives that are going well, because such areas don't call attention to themselves. If something is going well in your life, however, keep in mind that thousands of potential readers wish they could say the same. They'd love to know your secrets for a successful relationship, or your tips on how to raise happy and well-adjusted children. (Or well-adjusted pets: While I rejected hundreds of typical "my first puppy" articles, I was always glad to see articles that offered advice to first-time dog owners on how to handle the problems of puppyhood.) If you've learned from an experience, readers can learn from it as well.

Experiences to Avoid

Sometimes the experiences from which we learn the most are the negative ones. Writers, of course, don't simply learn from their mistakes; they write about them. At least, they should!

Experiences that you wish you could have avoided, that taught you a valuable (or painful) lesson, make wonderful service articles. What would you have done differently, if only you had known then what you know now? What would you do differently today? What steps would you take, what preparations would you make, to avoid the consequences of your experience?

Readers are probably the only group of people who will actually pay to listen to your good advice. Through personal experience articles, you can dish out advice by the page, colored by your own vivid account of what can happen if that advice is not heeded. It may be too late for you to avoid the difficulties you encountered, but it's never too late to help another.

Unpleasant experiences don't necessarily lead to unpleasant articles. Someone once said that comedy equals tragedy plus time: Sometimes, the best time to write about your experience is when you're finally able to look back on it and laugh. The resulting article will not only be useful, but entertaining as well.

For example, what about that disastrous family hiking trip you took in the MegaBugga Woods? The trip during which your dog broke its leash and tangled with a skunk, you got the worst sunburn of your life, and your child became a hands-on expert at identifying poison ivy? By the end of the day, you might have sworn never to set foot on another hiking trail again. By the time your sunburn began to fade, however, you knew you had an article.

Readers will laugh at your horrified reaction as your beskunked dog returns to frolic with you -- and learn from your section on hiking safety for pets (including the equipment every hiker needs when taking pets on the trail). They may wince at the description of your sunburn, but will be glad to know what sort of protective clothing a hiker should wear, as well as the types of first-aid supplies to bring along. Throw in a sidebar on how to identify toxic plants, and you'll have an article that could find a market in family magazines, travel publications, even pet magazines.

Of course, not every unpleasant experience lends itself to such lighthearted treatment. Some are more serious, and should be handled with sensitivity and care. Yet even potentially devastating experiences can often be avoided with the proper precautions. If you've suffered through such an event, you will be providing a valuable service to others by putting those precautions on paper.

Experiences to Endure

Some painful or traumatic experiences cannot be avoided; they can only be endured. When someone faces a tragedy or loss, they often want to hear from someone else who has been through a similar experience: Someone who understands, who knows how it feels, whose advice and comfort comes from the heart.

That's the big difference between a "coping" article written by an expert, and one written by an ordinary person (like you) who has been there, endured, and somehow managed to pull your life together again. Experts have good advice (which you may be able to incorporate into your article), but your experience "humanizes" that advice and makes it meaningful to the reader.

Writers will never run out of markets for articles on how to cope with grief, trauma, or loss, because people will never cease to experience these things. And because traumatic events affect different people in different ways (even within a single family unit), an effective article can reach many different markets.

For example, suppose you are writing about the trauma of losing a job. You might choose to focus on how this experience affected you, the family provider who is suddenly unemployed. You might write an article on how you coped with your feelings of anger, loss, helplessness, and frustration. You might write about the steps you took to find a new job. You might deal with issues of financial adjustments, or how to find support during your job hunt.

Your article options don't end there, however. Unless you are single, with no one to support but your cat, the loss of your job will affect others as well. How did it affect your spouse -- and how did your spouse's response help (or hinder) your own recovery? How did it affect your children, not only emotionally but in terms of the change in financial status? What could a reader do to help other family members cope, and how can family members themselves contribute?

Any type of loss, large or small, raises issues and emotions that must be dealt with, either as an individual or as a family. By using your own experience as the basis for a service article, you send the message that resolution and recovery are possible: One can take steps to work through the event and rebuild one's life, because you've done it.

Using Experiences Wisely

Once you've decided what experiences you want to write about, another question you must answer is how. While there are many ways to use one's experiences effectively in an article, these four are perhaps the most common:

  • As a framework to support the factual information you wish to present. Use your experience as a vehicle to "carry" the information you've gathered from expert sources, such as interviews or research. Show how that information affected, or is reflected in, your own experience. Use phrases like "we learned" or "we discovered" instead of "experts say."

  • As anecdotal material to support and illustrate the factual information. In this case, you'll use the factual information as your framework, and highlight each point with an experiential example or illustration.

  • As an anecdotal lead and conclusion. Some articles begin and end with an experiential anecdote (e.g., "When Mary's house burned down, she had no idea that her troubles were just beginning..."). The body of the article, however, may be purely factual, with few personal details. Often, writers invent this sort of anecdotal material, but such inventions generally feel "faked." Editors vastly prefer the real thing.

  • As a sidebar. You may prefer to restrict your primary article to the facts, and use the personal experience elements as a sidebar to illustrate and enhance those facts. Another approach is to use the factual material as a sidebar to the personal story. (This works particularly well when your material lends itself to a list format.)

Some Final Tips

Besides asking yourself how the experience relates to the reader, you must also ask yourself how you relate to the experience. For example:

  • The experience should be over. If you don't know how the story ends, you're not in a position to write about it. If an event is painful, you need sufficient time and distance to have gained some "closure" before you're ready to write about it for others. Wait until you've reached a point of resolution; then you can help readers reach it as well.

  • You must offer a solution. Readers want to know how to change things, fix things, make things better. If your conclusion is that life will never get better, write about something else.

  • You must offer the reader an attainable goal. If your idea of the perfect vacation is to climb Mt. Everest, that's fine -- but the experience may find a rather limited readership. Offer readers an experience they can attain, and offer specific steps to help them attain it.

  • You must offer evidence that your suggestions work. If, for example, you're describing "Ten Ways to Get Your Novel Published," you'd better have published a novel! Either describe steps that worked for you, or the advice of experts that has been shown to work for others.

Whatever approach you choose, it's the "been there, done that" element of your story that will bring your article to life. Editors hunger for articles that combine useful, factual information with the warm, human touch of experience. Turning your story of "what I did" into an article on "how you can do it" is one of the best ways to save your material from the slush pile. At least, that's been my experience!

Related Articles:

Mastering the Personal Experience Article, by Deborah Newton
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/personal2.shtml

See also:
Creative Nonfiction (Essays, Personal Experiences, Memoirs, Family Histories and More

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in The Writer

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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