Making stories about your life engaging for readers
Do you ever feel like every story that could possibly be written has been done already? Well, I am here to tell you that your feelings are correct —everything that could be written about has definitely been covered already, but that shouldn’t stop you from writing!
While the odds are that there are experiences that have already been discussed in the writing world, the good news is that the odds are always good that there are new readers looking for writing about that very same experience right now. We write and read about the experiences we have specifically to realize that we are not alone. So, chances are, if you’re wanting to write about a certain experience, someone else is also going through the same thing and your work could provide value to them.
All of that goes to say that your experiences, from the most mundane to the “big” experience of life, have a takeaway that readers can learn from, and that editors will be willing to pay for. But how exactly do you take your life experiences and transform them into stories that will sell? Here are a few simple tips to making your experiences come to life through stories.
Focus on the small details
As writers, we know that there is power in the small details of the story: the character description that lets us “see” our new best friend, the story setting that invites us in, that one haunting clue that they overlooked in the investigation scene. There is power in details and sometimes, focusing on building your story from one small detail can make the difference in your work.
As a small example, I have written a lot of articles in my career as a writer, but one of the pieces I am most proud of stemmed from the simple experience of spotting a butterfly during my evening run. It was an ordinary day, with an ordinary insect flying by, but taking the experience and turning it into something more meaningful and relatable completely transformed the moment. To this day, it is still one of the pieces I am most proud of because I can still vividly see that butterfly in my mind and get transported back to that day, with the sun on my back and the dusty road beneath my feet. The small detail of the butterfly took the story to so much more than “just” an article about butterflies.
Don’t make it about you
In all my blathering about butterflies, we’ll also go to the opposite end of the route, which is to take your experiences beyond you and focus on how they transcend into the lives of others. “I think about the wider resonance,” explains writer Kelly Burch. “The ‘so what’ that makes it appealing beyond just sharing my experience.”
To practice this with your own experience, think of the broader picture of what an instance means to you. Ask questions about what the experience meant to you or put yourself in the shoes of a reader to see it from a different perspective. What lessons can be gleaned from the experience through the eyes of someone else?
Start with an anecdote
Take writer Gemma Hartley’s most recent viral sensation for Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags; We’re Just Fed Up” as an example of this; the article, while expertly written, is incredibly powerful in its opening anecdote. Hartley sets the scene for the entire piece with the real-life experience of asking her husband to find and hire a housecleaner for Mother’s Day.
Almost every mother can relate to the experience of wanting a specific gift, only to be disappointed by a partner who doesn’t quite “get it” and her words made the piece come to life not in spite of its commonness, but because of it. Her anecdote served to make the piece engaging and entirely relatable. In fact, Hartley’s article was so good that it landed her a book deal. Kind of makes you want to scour your life for article fodder, doesn’t it?
Consider the source
If you’re writing about a real-life experience that also includes another person or group of people, you will also want to carefully consider how you’d like to present that individual or group into the public through your words. You could decide to be as straightforward as possible and ask the individual for permission to write about them or you could use the experience as a “launching” point for a general topic, so you can avoid any specific, identifying details.
“Keep it broad,” advises TEDX speaker and writer Gloria Malone. “Only write about what you can emotionally and mentally defend and deal with blow back from.”
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, four young kids, and a flock of chickens. Find her at chauniebrusie.com.