Whether you are writing articles about yourself or others, be careful not to come across as sounding too perfect. Make yourself vulnerable. Show your flaws, as well as the positive points. Paint a realistic picture when writing about other people too. Only then can your readers identify.
Before you write your personal experience story, decide what your market will be and write to that market. Read all of the magazines you have time for to become familiar with them. I’d suggest reading several issues of a periodical before submitting a manuscript to that magazine. Many of these have articles from recent publications and their guidelines on their websites. You can pick up freebies at writers’ conferences.
You must be comfortable with a magazine to write for it. For the Christian market, purchase The Christian Writer’s Market Guide. The personal experience markets are broken into subheadings such as adult, children, missions, pastors, young adult, and women. Also see the heading, “Interviews/Profiles” if you are writing other people’s stories.
This concludes the series on Writing the Personal Experience Article. Next week we will begin a series on Interviewing.
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 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
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.
2. Take-away – what readers remember when they have forgotten the story. The take-away is what readers takes from your story and uses in their own lives to become better people, to move closer to God, or to realize a truth.
3. 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.
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.
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.
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?