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Personally Speaking
by Kathryn Lay

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Does the thought of sharing your personal life (the things that happen to you, the events of your life and feelings that go with them), make your blood run cold? If so, read no further.

But, if you find the idea of sharing what you learn and take away from your life an enticing idea, you can probably write personal experiences that will sell and sell again.

Personal Experience articles can be funny, touching, or sad. They can give the reader information, inspiration, and show them how lifeÍs messes and joys can bring about healing, learning, laughter, and support.

Have you ever read an article that has touched you in a special way? You think, "That happened to me" or "That's the way I feel" or even, "Maybe I could write about my experience with..."

Someone else's story has communicated a feeling or emotion that relates to your life, or has shown you know to solve a similar problem. Personal experience articles can be humorous, sad, informative, or thought-provoking. They remind readers how they felt in a similar situation, or they warn others how to avoid a problem. Many times, readers, learn how to cope with or overcome similar events. And most often, personal experience articles offer hope.

If something special has happened in your life that you think would touch others, there are several ways in which you can turn it into a publishable article. Personal experiences can be written in as few as fifty words or run to several thousand. They can be about big issues or small.

I've written about my false pregnancy, infertility, my daughter's adoption, my husband's re-proposal and our second wedding, anger issues, job losses, illnesses, cute things my daughter has said or done, animal encounters, working with refugees, lost friendships, my collection obsessions, the "joys" of moving, volunteering, bickering nieces, and much more. Look at copies of many magazines and you'll see personal experience articles, stories, and essays. Most of the popular anthologies out now (Chicken Soup, Chocolate for Women, Cup of Comfort, God Allows U-Turns) are made up mostly of personal experience stories.

Here are the three most popular types of Personal Experience pieces:

1) Your Story. This is an account of something you or someone close to you has experienced that will interest other people--something they can relate to or identify with. Your story may be as deep as surviving a crisis or loss, as personal as understanding an emotion, or as simple as the result of a momentary encounter that leaves you changed in a small or a large way.

2) Real-life Drama. Most people have not had the experience of being mauled by a bear or surviving a plane crash, but the fact that someone else went through this adventure or trauma and survived can make compelling reading. "As told to" articles are one way to write someone else's dramatic story. You must first, of course, get the person's permission. The most difficult part of real-life dramas are capturing the emotion and description as if you were there when it happened.

3) The How-To. In this type of piece, you share what you've experienced emotionally and/or physically while you were pursuing a particular goal, and show others how they might achieve a similar goal. For instance, has an experience with your children, friends, relatives, or even strangers, or your success in a new venture, given you insight and information that would be valuable to others? Use anecdotes, emotion, and firsthand experience to write your how-to personal experiences.

How do you know if your story can sell?

Is it something that many can relate to, or only a few? Example: A short humor piece told of the struggles with "one size fits all" for bodies that don't seem to fit. Most women relate to this humor and would rather laugh along with the author than feel they are alone in their frustration.

Does your story have a take-away message? In other words, when the reader finishes your piece, will they have learned how to do or not do something, how to handle a similar situation, or understand their own feelings? In my "Be Angry And Sin Not", I told about my experiences with anger and how I overcame them. It was geared toward my problem, in a way other readers with a similar problem could learn something without feeling fingers were pointing at them.

Can you tell your story objectively? Sometimes we are too close to an experience and the writing is over-emotional or stale with an effort to hide from our emotion. For several years after my false pregnancy, I couldn't write about it. I had to step away and understand my feelings and how to express them first.

Will your story elicit emotion from readers? Whether it's laughter, tears, cheers, surprise, or the ability to relate; the easiest stories to sell are those ones that editors and readers feel some emotion towards. Whenever I write about any aspect of my daughter's adoption, it sells and sells again. There are a million adoption stories, and I've learned the areas of my own that brings emotions to my readers.

Personal experience articles aren't necessarily about momentous events. They might deal with a more common experience, such as your relationship with your mother-in-law. Or in an informative article you may explain how your runaway dog gave you an idea for a new business. Humorous personal experience pieces are always in demand. Most people can relate to the problems of moving. In an article I wrote about my own moving experience, there was nothing deep or life-threatening, yet readers could understand and laugh along with my misadventures.

Some of my personal experience articles and essays have sold the first time out; others have sold after ten or more rejections. As with all writing, persistence and market research will increase your chances of selling.

Writers of personal experience articles must be willing to open their lives, their emotions, their thoughts. Does it bother you to know that hundreds, thousands, even millions of readers are going to take a peak into your life? Will it bother those you write about or include in your writing? These are considerations as to how personal you will get.

But when you open yourself in this way, you will reach others. You may save a life, bring laughter, teach a truth or dispel a myth, give instruction, build hope, take away fear, or give someone the joy that there are others experiencing the same thing as them and they are not alone.

If you enjoy reading personal experience articles, there is a good chance you will enjoy writing them, and get satisfaction from touching readers' hearts and lives.

Find Out More...

Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal - Heather Haapoja

An Exercise in Essay-Writing - Sheila Bender

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away! - Uma Girish

Copyright © 2007 Kathryn Lay
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kathryn Lay has had over 1000 articles, essays, and short stories published in magazines and anthologies such as Woman's Day, Cricket, Guideposts, CHICKEN SOUP, and more. Her first children's novel for ages 8-12, CROWN ME! is out from Holiday House Books. She is also the author of The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer, which can be purchased through her website at http://www.kathrynlay.com.


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