Writing the Personal Experience Article (Part 5)

Write your personal experience article in an interesting style, presenting a new twist. Your story must have appeal and drama. Tell what the problem is and how to solve it. You don’t want the editor to say, “Didn’t I just read that story half an hour ago?”

Keep your story upbeat. As Christians, we live victoriously. Most publications want a happy ending and some kind of a turnaround. The story needs to go somewhere.

Now let me offer some subjects for personal experience stories used with permission and presented by Kathy Collard Miller:

  1. Physical healing – injuries, sickness, addictions
  2. Emotional healing – fear, widowhood, death of a loved one
  3. Relationships – friendship or family tie, overcoming an obstacle, or acceptance
  4. Distant past – childhood or young adult experiences, wisdom from hindsight
  5. Adventure – danger, suspense, foreign locations
  6. Conversion – how someone became a Christian
  7. Personality profile – interesting lives of others
  8. Organization or group – history or ministry

 

Writing the Personal Experience Article (Part 4)

The personal experience story is generally about 1,200-1,500 words and is always true. It is usually written in the first person, because first person is more powerful. It contains three ingredients:

  1. Reader Identification – your readers may not have experienced exactly the same thing, but they can empathize. You want readers to be involved at the heart level. Write heart-to-heart, not head-to-head. You want to work a change in your readers’ hearts that will result in a change in their lives. Don’t preach. Involve readers on an emotional level. You do this by using fictional techniques in your nonfiction. Use anecdotes, dialogue, and description. Be specific and concrete, not abstract. Take readers on a journey with you. Make them feel and see all that is happening on the way.

You want them to say, “I couldn’t put it down. I cried. I laughed.” This is achieved by showing readers rather than telling them. Show—don’t tell.

 

  1. Take-away – what readers remember when they have forgotten the story. The take-away is what readers take from your story and use in their own lives to become better people, to move closer to God, or to realize a truth.

 

  1. Spiritual Emphasis or Reader’s Reaction – move your readers, inspire them, and arouse their emotions. You want your readers to do something when they finish reading your story. Perhaps you want them to change in some way or desire to help another individual.

 

 

 

Writing the Personal Experience Article (Part 3)

Your personal experience story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many manuscripts that cross my desk don’t! You must present a problem, show conflict, and come to a resolution. Write the beginning and the end before you go back and fill in the middle. You may change some things as you go along, but you must have a game plan.

In the first paragraph of your story, you must hook the reader. Open with an exciting beginning that makes the reader want to read on. Open with the viewpoint character. Write your story as seen from one person’s viewpoint. Paint a brief picture of your main character. Show their personality. Make your readers see the characters and identify with them.

The best plumb line to use when writing the personal experience story is Guideposts, the top-selling Christian magazine with a readership of over eight million, including places it is donated such as the armed services. Guideposts  considers itself a practical guide for successful living. It shows that God is with you, that He cares for you through your everyday experiences. Guideposts  has contributing editors who are Jewish and Catholic too. Its purpose is to revitalize people’s faith. I suggest you check out their website and use Guideposts as a guide for other Christian publications that accept first person, personal experience stories. In the secular market, Readers Digest is the plumb line.

Writing the Personal Experience Article (Part 2)

Use the three-step writing method for personal experience stories as well as anything else you write. First, turn on the analytical side of your brain and write your theme in one or two words. Then develop a focus sentence that sums up the main point you want to make in the article. Do not deviate from your theme. Write some sort of an outline. Then set what you have written aside for a day or so. When you go back, forget all you’ve been taught in the way of grammar, word usage, and punctuation. Turn on the right side, the creative side of your brain, and try to write your first rough draft in one sitting. Then set that aside to let it cool. Then go back and polish, whittle, and rewrite, using both sides of the brain.

In a personal experience article, the storyline becomes the vehicle to relate the message you want to convey to the readers. It may be a moral lesson, an ethical issue, or a religious truth. You want to provide insight and instruction for your readers. They must learn to own their own belief system and values to live by. In order for your readers to become involved in your story, the humanness of your main character needs to come through clearly. Then your readers can identify with your character. If you are writing your own story, then you are the main character.

Consequently, you must become vulnerable with your readers and be willing to make yourself transparent. Be careful not to air your dirty laundry, though. Try to chat with your readers as if they were friends, sitting at your kitchen table sharing a cup of tea. Try to be open and honest, so readers can benefit from your experience.

Writing the Personal Experience Article (Part 1)

Everyone has a story to tell. Each of us has at least one story inside our heads. You can use your own personal experiences to create salable articles or use interviewing techniques to tell the stories of others. Do you know what type of magazine article is the most popular? It is the inspirational true life drama—the personal experience story.

I’m going to challenge you to write an article about an experience you have had that will benefit others. Do you keep a journal? This is an excellent way to get your feelings down on paper. But remember that some of the entries in your journal are meant just for you. These entries have been therapeutic for you to put on paper, but they won’t benefit others. Remember you are writing for publication; you are writing for your readers not for yourself. And you don’t ever want to bore your readers.

Richard Green, formerly of Decision Magazine, suggests some excellent questions to ask yourself before you begin writing your story.

  1. What have I learned from this experience?
  2. What can I teach others through what I have learned?
  3. What do I want the reader to do at the end of the article?

 

The Use of Narrative and Exposition (Part 6)

Dialogue

Punctuation: Where to place the punctuation in dialogue can be confusing. The commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks.

 Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence. Example: Why did I keep hearing over and over in my head the words, “I’ll never forget you”?  Before he said good-bye, he asked, “Will I ever forget you?”

This ends our series on ‘The Use of Narrative and Exposition.”

The Use of Narrative and Exposition (Part 5)

As has been mentioned, the best way to move a story along is through dialogue. Here is an example of a devotional that is almost entirely dialogue. It is taken from my book, Rest Stops for Single Mothers.

The Fire

“Mom, I had to abandon my car,” my son’s voice sounded breathless on the other end of the telephone line. “Flames were jumping across the highway. Burning branches fell into the back of my convertible.”

“Are you OK?”  I asked, concern filling my voice.

“Oh, Mom, I’m fine, but I’m worried about my car.”

“Tell me what happened. Maybe I can help,” I offered.

“I was on my way home from class, and I could see the fire burning out of control in the Santa Barbara hills, but it seemed far away. The freeway was blocked, so I took the old highway towards town. About half-way there, people on either side of the road had been told to evacuate their homes. Everyone was trying to leave. There was a huge traffic jam. Suddenly, flames  jumped across the highway, and that’s when it happened.”

Rich was talking so fast that I didn’t understand everything. “That’s when what happened?” I asked.

“My clutch cable snapped, and I couldn’t shift gears. I pulled over to the side as far as I could and had to abandon my car.”

“What did you do then?”

“I called my girlfriend to come and get me. Mom, I can’t afford to lose my car. I don’t have comprehensive insurance on it, and I’ll have to drop out for a semester if I can’t get to school.”

I knew Rich was right. Rich’s finances for his college education were extremely tight. Without his car, he’d have to leave school and obtain a full-time job to earn money for a new one. I saw no alternative.

“Let’s pray about it, Rich. God knows the situation.”

I rarely pray for material possessions, and I’ve never prayed for a car before, but this time I did. “Lord, You know Rich needs that beat-up Volvo convertible to get to his college classes. Please spare it in this fire. We pray that the fire will soon be contained.”

Three days later, I received another call from Rich. “Mom, they finally let me check on my car. I caught a ride back to where I left it. The fire burned to within a hundred feet, and it’s full of ashes, but it runs. It’s in the shop now getting a new clutch cable.”

God has taught us to pray specifically. In this case, He knew how important that car was to Rich’s education. He spared the car, and I learned an important lesson. When things look bleak, when money is tight, God is there, showing His presence in the smallest details of our lives.

The Use of Narrative and Exposition (Part 4)

Conversational Speech: Dialogue should be kept simple, natural, and conversational. However, don’t use the exact words a person would actually speak because, in normal conversation, a person uses far more words than are needed. Actual speech needs to be whittled down, so it is crisp and clear. Never let your characters ramble.

Once you have a detailed character sketch of your main character, you will know how he will react in certain instances. You will be aware of his feelings, ideas, and beliefs. His personality will come through in his speech. He will help you write the dialogue, because, if you know him, you will know what he will say. As your reader gets to know your main character, he knows what the character will say, too. If your main person acts out of character, the reader will know and will feel something is wrong. Also, be careful not to contrive your character’s speech or have him preach. The reader doesn’t want to be talked down to—either by you or the main character. We teach the reader lessons by what the main character learns, not by lecturing.

These suggestions also apply to the minor characters to a lesser degree. When you write a novel, the minor characters are more developed, and these points become more relevant to them. In a short story, however, you don’t have much room to develop more than one or two characters with any depth. Usually the reader will identify with the main character, so he becomes your vehicle for getting your message across. The most powerful way to accomplish that is through his actual spoken words.

 

The Use of Narrative and Exposition (Part 3)

Good Dialogue is essential to your story. Dialogue moves the action along better than any other medium. Dialogue can be used effectively in fictional stories, personal experience stories, devotionals, and anecdotes within articles and nonfiction books. Here are some tips for using authentic dialogue in your manuscripts.

Multiple Characters: When possible, have two people in your story, so they can talk to each other. If this is not possible and only one person is involved in a happening, perhaps you could relay that incident after it occurred through a telephone conversation or a chat over coffee. Staying in someone’s mind and listening to their thoughts is a boring place for the reader to be.

Tags: Be careful of the tags you use for dialogue. “He said” is better than “he articulated” or “he uttered.” After all, what is important is the information between the quotation marks, not the word used for “said.” An exception would be if you needed to show strong emotion or a certain voice tone that the words by themselves didn’t express. Examples: He shouted, he whispered.

A word of warning: you can’t smile, sigh, or laugh words. Instead of writing, “You’re cute,” he smiled, use:  “You’re cute,” he said with a boyish grin.

The Use of Narrative and Exposition (Part 2)

Good writers weave exposition subtly into the action so it doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow. Proper exposition appears to derive directly from the viewpoint character’s thoughts or memories.

In the proper blending of narrative and exposition, the author communicates information to the reader through:

  1. What the characters say,
  2. What the characters do,
  3. What the main character thinks, and
  4. What the main character remembers.

This blending is achieved by using detail, dialogue, and description—the components of the Three-D Technique.

Detail: Use the specific rather than the general.

Dialogue: Direct conversations between the characters, especially characters in conflict, reveal their personalities. Dialogue moves the story along and turns narrative into interesting conversation. Develop a different style for each character.

Description: Draw from all five senses to describe the setting and the characters. Use sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to create a mood.