How to Turn Personal Experience into an Article
-One of my first successes as a writer was an article about my experience learning to sail. The first time I ever sailed on a monohull sailboat, I was completely flummoxed when the boat heeled over. I thought sailboats sailed across the water the way a car travels on a road – upright. It took a few months and numerous experiences that bordered on terror for me to adjust. An article about my adjustment from fearful landlubber to giddy sailor garnered my first reader responses. It was the food of the gods.
-I got my first writing “job” when a friend decided to start a boating magazine. Based in Omaha, the magazine did not have a lot of subscribers who sailed. As a startup, the magazine could not afford compensation for its writers, but I yearned to find out if anyone would read what I could write. I wrote for love and for the adventure and just to see if I could do it. My second article, “Living on Tilt” incorporated my initial fear of heeling with a little humor and concluded with a testimonial to the pure joy of sailing. Readers responded with delight and asked if I would write more such stories. Would I!
-Personal experience can be the foundation of many great articles. A single adventure or personal trial may be the meat of the whole article. One of my best-liked articles told the story of how my husband and I learned the importance of knowing weather signs. The article chronicled our survival, confessed our mistakes, and summed up our lessons learned. In another one I told about the first time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner in a marine galley. I found my first paying market with an article about the way forgiveness heals in a family crisis. Humor and pathos are as valuable in articles as they are in novels.
-Sometimes you will find that numerous personal experiences deftly illustrate a theme you want to explore in an article. Everyone knows that communication is critical to the success of a marriage, and when I decided to write on that topic, I was able to share numerous illustrations from my experience sailing with my husband. By using illustrations of the way failure to communicate interferes with successful sailing, I presented the destructive effects of poor interpersonal communications with a lighter touch.
-It is important to remember that people are not really interested in your family, your friends and your opinions. They are interested in stories that engage their emotions, entertain, challenge or even teach them something. A memorable article might be set in Yellowstone Park during last summer’s vacation, but it won’t be memorable if it is a simply a diary of your daily travels. Just as a novel needs a plot that piques the reader’s attention, an article must continually make the reader ask, “then what?” Readers will snooze before finishing the first paragraph that begins, “Day 1 – we pack the trunk.” A story that starts with a bear at your tent door when you wake up will be more intriguing. That great story could lead very naturally into an article that elaborates on the role of bears in the environment, or strategies for hiking and camping in nature preserves, or the National Park policy for managing the bear population.
-Your life is a treasure chest of memories and great stories. If you use your best writing skills to share your adventures, the treasure might add up in your bank account.
© 2009 Katherine Harms
Katherine Harms lives and writes aboard the sailboat No Boundaries in Baltimore, Maryland. A liveaboard sailor for the past 8 years, sailing provides a lot of material for her writing life. She and her husband have cruised the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic coast between Delaware and Maine, and the Caribbean. Future plans include cruises to Nova Scotia and the Amazon.