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How to Outgrow 'Write What You
Every writer has heard it time and again, and its not without merit: Write what you know.
When I began freelancing, I was just out of college, so what did I write about? College. I wrote profiles of collegiate entrepreneurs, I wrote editorials about college life... and after a while, I really wanted to move on and write about other things. But I didnt feel qualified.
Luckily, I didnt let that hold me back for too long.
Write what you know is a very good starting point. But thats all it is. Its a place for you to go to get your feet wet, and a place to come back to when the tide gets too high. But its not a place to stay for very long.
A better piece of advice, in my opinion, is Write what you WANT to know. One of the great perks of being a freelance writer is that you get paid to learn about things. So... what do you want to learn about?
If I had completely disregarded Write what you know and simply opened a page of the Writers Market at random, figuring Id send a query to whichever market my finger happened to touch, my career would be very different today. I might have ended up writing about finances, miniature horses, and aerobics. And you know what? I would have hated it.
I have no experience with any of the above topics, and theres a good reason for that: I never really WANTED to have experience with them. Since I have no real passion for any of the topics, if I had to write articles about them, it would feel like work.
But did you ever stop to think about the things you always wanted to know, but never found out? Or all the interesting people you wanted to meet? Or the problems youve encountered that you wanted solved? Now those are article topics.
Try this exercise. Fill in the blanks with your answers.
1. If time and money werent factors, Id love to take a course in ___________________.
2. Ive always wanted to ask (person you know)______________________ about _________________________.
3. Ive always wanted to know how __________________________ works.
4. My life would improve if I could only ______________________________.
5. When I have a sleepless night, its usually because Im worried about ____________________.
6. The worst injustice I can think of is ______________________________.
7. When I was a kid, I was really passionate about _________________________.
8. I have always been embarrassed to admit that ________________________really interests me.
9. In my life, I have overcome ___________________________________________.
10. If I could volunteer for just one cause, it would be __________________________.
11. I wish I were better at ___________________________________.
12. I have always wondered why _________________________________________.
You may have lots of answers for each statement. Thats great! Each answer is a possible article topic. Most of them wont be specific enough (or perhaps too specific) for an article, but they should give you lots of new starting points from which to brainstorm angles.
Think of freelance writing as your own opportunity to learn about all the things you ever wanted to know, and dont worry if youre not yet an expert in any of these areas! Among my favorite writing assignments have been topics in which I had no previous expertise:
-An article about a woman who started her own greeting card business for Womans Own. Of course, Ive never started my own greeting card businessbut the topic certainly interested me, and I wanted a good excuse to learn more about it.
-An article about how media overload affects childrens development for KidsGrowth.com. Im not even a parent, let alone an expert in child psychology. But Ive always wondered how increasing media immersion (TV, Internet, video games, radio, etc.) has affected people in MY generation.
-An article about book packagers for Writers Digest. Okay, I had written for a book packager at that pointbut just one, and I was eager to learn more about the industry and its players. It gave me the perfect excuse to contact book packagers and learn more about the market. Many of them now have my resume on file for future assignments, too!
-Several articles about interesting inventions for Zooba.com. How much fun did I have learning about how Velcro™, aspirin, and Post-It Notes™ were invented? This made for great dinner table conversation for weeks. My father always fancied himself a bit of a mad inventor, and I guess the gene spilled over to me. I devour these quirky stories of how the human mind approaches problem-solving creatively.
-Every disabilities-related article Ive ever written. Was I an expert in this area when I began? No. I have a brother who has Down syndrome, so I had the benefit of some extra understanding, but I only became an expert by writing about this topic over and over. Each time, I learned something new that I really wanted to learnnew legislation for people with disabilities, profiles of amazing people with disabilities, issues of discrimination, etc.
When working to broaden your writing horizons, be sure to think about two things: your passions, and your curiosities. You dont need to only write about topics that mean everything to you; you canand shouldalso write about the little things that bounce around your brain. Have you always wondered how the custom of kissing under the mistletoe evolved? Or how Mexican jumping beans jump?
Have you wondered what it feels like to go back to school in your 40s or 50s? Have you wondered if theres a way to stop all that junk mail and those telemarketing calls from darkening your doorstep?
Do some preliminary research, formulate a query letter, and... ta da! You get paid to find answers to these pressing questions, or learn more about your hobbies and passions.
Consider it a challenge. Keep learning. Use your writing as a vehicle to answer every question you never had time to answer before. There are lots of people out there who have wondered about those very same things, and you can help them!
You dont need to be an expert. You need to be a great researcher, and you need to be willing to ask questions. Lots of questions, sometimes. But thats one of the great things about writerswere such curious creatures.
Write what you want to
know, and soon enough, itll be what you DO know.
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