Writers are steadily admonished: Write what you know! Well, I don’t know about you, but I know a lot, and much of it, okay, most of it, would not go any further along the transom than the nearest circular file. After all, who wants to read that trash pickup in my neighborhood is Wednesday mornings? Or, what editor would buy a piece about replacing household light bulbs?
In the right hands, of course, these could be fascinating topics. Dave Barry could produce a column about attaching a paperclip, and John McPhee often wrote about rocks. But if you have not won a Pulitzer lately it is not likely an editor would be interested in your musings on the mundane.
So, given that writing about that which you are already well versed sounds logical – no travel, research, or interviews – how can you make it appealing to a reader, to an editor? Simple: Turn the writers’ adage on its head! By approaching your favorite topic from an entirely new perspective, that is, from the vantage point of Write what you do not know.
It’s how beat journalists maintain their interest in such specialties as the local school board, and the criminal court. They’re always looking for new angles, things they don’t already know – or, more specifically, things their readers are not likely to already know. It’s not easy to look at the common, the every day, with a fresh perspective. It takes practice and experience but once you catch on it’ll become second nature.
I recently sold editors on essays about stargazing (I’m a very amateur astronomer so almost everything is new and fascinating to me and, as it turns out, interesting to a lot of other people, too), bicycling (a cyclist for years, I wondered why automobile drivers tend to drive dangerously close to cyclists), autumn scenery (I thought the fall would be a perfect time to write about a hilltop look-out I’d known about for years).
What sells editors on stories is a fresh approach, written with enthusiasm and energy. And there are few better ways to bring that into your work than by writing about something brand new to you – something you didn’t already know, but in which you already have a keen interest and depth of knowledge so that you can bring a level of mastery to your subject.
How will you know when you have the subject for such a write-what-you-now-know-more-about-than-you did piece? A good place to start is with your hobbies and your local community. When you hear about something new in your town, or learn a new technique or a new trend in your hobby and you say to yourself: “cool” – that is a sure signal that you have something worth writing about, something about which you’d enjoy writing. And that enthusiasm will show in your work.
For instance, did you just hear that the local hardware store owners are looking to sell their business after 40 years? Well, despite the fact that you have been shopping there for 15 years and know the owners well, the material is likely there to write an “end of an institution” piece that would captivate local readers. Have you noticed that more and more (minorities, women, men, children) are entering your (sport, hobby) than ever before? Quick, write about it before someone else does.
Despite what we’ve all been told, it’s not what you know that brings valuable exuberance to your writing and the critical fresh angle to an editor’s desk – it’s what you have only just discovered.
Damien Roohr has been a journalist, corporate marketing/communications director, and is now an independent consultant and freelance writer. His byline has recently appeared in The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant, and Sky & Telescope Magazine.