How to Outgrow
What You Know'
Every writer has heard it
time and again, and itís not without merit: "Write what you
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 didnít feel qualified.
Luckily, I didnít let that
hold me back for too long.
"Write what you know" is a
very good starting point. But thatís all it is. Itís 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 itís 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 Iíd 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
I have no experience with any
of the above topics, and thereís 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 youíve encountered that you wanted solved? Now those are
Try this exercise. Fill in
the blanks with your answers.
1. If time and money werenít
factors, Iíd love to take a course in ___________________.
2. Iíve always wanted to ask
(person you know)______________________ about
3. Iíve always wanted to know
how __________________________ works.
4. My life would improve if I
could only ______________________________.
5. When I have a sleepless
night, itís usually because Iím 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
9. In my life, I have
10. If I could volunteer for
just one cause, it would be __________________________.
11. I wish I were better at
12. I have always wondered
You may have lots of answers
for each statement. Thatís great! Each answer is a possible article
topic. Most of them wonít 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 donít worry if youíre 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 Womanís Own. Of course,
Iíve never started my own greeting card businessóbut the topic
certainly interested me, and I wanted a good excuse to learn more
-An article about how "media
overload" affects childrenís development for KidsGrowth.com. Iím not
even a parent, let alone an expert in child psychology. But Iíve
always wondered how increasing media immersion (TV, Internet, video
games, radio, etc.) has affected people in MY generation.
-An article about book
packagers for Writerís Digest. Okay, I had written for a book
packager at that pointóbut 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 Velcroô, aspirin, and Post-It Notesô 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.
article Iíve 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 learnónew 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 donít need to only write about topics that
mean "everything" to you; you canóand shouldóalso 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 thereís 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
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
You donít 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 thatís
one of the great things about writersóweíre such curious creatures.
Write what you want to know,
and soon enough, itíll be what you DO know.
Jenna Glatzer is the
editor-in-chief of http://www.absolutewrite.com. Sign up for the
FREE weekly e-zine and get a free list of more than 180 agents who
are open to new writers! She is also the author of OUTWITTING
WRITER'S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN (Lyons Press, 2003) and
the new book WORDS YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW: 1001 COMMONLY MISUSED &
MISUNDERSTOOD WORDS & PHRASES (Adams Media, 2004).
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