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How To Write What You Don't
The most common advice given to freelance nonfiction writers is this: write what you know. Great advice – but sooner or later, an editor is going to say to you, particularly if you’ve been pursuing them: Are you willing to work on assignment?
Most writers, when faced with that question, will instinctively shout, “Yes!” And most writers, after hanging up the phone, or sending the affirmative e-mail will then instinctively think, “What did I get myself into?”
This was my reaction the first time I approached a local editor. Truthfully, I had no idea what I could contribute to her publication. At that point my area of interest was parenting humor, and her monthly newspaper focused on the history of a specific local neighborhood. I had approached her only because I wanted to write, she was local, and the publication was small enough that I figured they’d be willing to put me to work.
So when that editor said she wanted me to write profiles of local historical sports figures, I smiled and looked enthusiastic, all the while thinking to myself, “Ick. I hate sports.”
But I rose to the challenge. Although sports is not my first love (come to think of it, it doesn’t appear anywhere on my list of “loves”) history fascinates me, and I was intrigued at the thought that my little city had a history in sports.
Initially, I was to find my own subjects, so I trundled off to the local mall, where our city’s Sports Hall of Fame gallery is located. I took my mother with me, figuring she’d been around a little longer than I, and might recognize some names of importance. I stared at the portraits on the wall, most of them unfamiliar. I zeroed in on pictures that showed a uniform, to gain a clue as to what sport these individuals had excelled in.
I came away with a short list, and prepared to discuss it with the editor. As luck would have it, she called me first – she’d chosen a subject for me! She named a basketball player I’d never heard of, and I set out on a quest for information.
The player was on my short list from the Hall of Fame, but the Hall doesn’t answer their phone. The first thing I did, since I am an Internet junkie, was do a Google search. It turned up absolutely nothing. At that point, I had nothing but a name. I started asking friends and relatives, and eventually, I turned up some facts.
Armed with these new snippets of information – like, the guy had been on the only Olympic medal winning basketball team in Canadian history – I Googled again. Pay dirt!
There were a number of articles scattered here and there about the medal winning team, the final showdown game between the Canadian and U.S. teams, and other bits of info I could use. What I now faced was the problem of finding the guy. None of the available articles mentioned what had happened to him after that famous game – in 1936.
It was time to go local again, so I headed for the big library, and started flipping through 65-year-old newspaper clippings on microfilm. I had to apply some logic to my search – I knew it was the 1936 Summer Olympics, therefore it would have been sometime in July or August…eventually I found some local coverage, which provided me with my player’s day job and names of his team-mates.
From there, it was a short hop to the decades old city directories, where I discovered the name of his wife and two daughters. I traced my athlete to 1972, when he vanished again. Searching through the archived obituaries, I discovered his wife had died in the late 80s, at which time they had moved out of town. I still didn’t even know if my guy was alive or dead.
But I figured his children had to be. The wife’s obituary listed the daughters’ married names and the towns where they had been living in the late 80s. I went back to the Internet, and pulled up the white pages.
There were fourteen possible matches for the first daughter, which wasn’t too bad. Deciding I had nothing to lose, and few other courses of action, I started calling the list. At that point I had enough information to write a 200 word short, not a 900 word profile, so it was call or admit defeat.
I got the right number on the third try. Yes, she was the athlete’s daughter, no he was no longer living, but yes, she’d love to answer some questions for me. I scheduled a phone interview for the next day so that I could properly prepare myself, and thanked her profusely.
I learned several things in my circuitous search for the information I needed. The first was that I started, through that process, to think of myself as a writer. When I started digging for information, I still wasn’t sure – but the first time I picked up the telephone and said, “I’m writing an article on…” and people willingly provided me with all the information they had, I felt like I’d stumbled on to a secret code!
People didn’t pat me on the head and say, “Sure you are.” They took me seriously, because I was professional, I was polite, and I acted as though I had every right to bestow the title of writer on myself. I may have started out insecure and uncertain, but every step I took gave me more confidence in myself and my abilities.
I also learned that while the Internet has been a godsend to writers in terms of making information available, it’s not the only source for the facts you may be looking for. A writer still needs to rely on such old-fashioned methods as microfilm, city directories and library resources. And talking to real people.
The article turned out great, and led to other assignments on local sports figures. I discovered that I could enjoy writing the articles, even if I didn’t enjoy sports. In the end, they weren’t about sports at all – they were about the athletes themselves, and that made a difference. Because I rose to the challenge, and was willing to write what I didn’t know, I learned that the scope of my writing could grow beyond my own small comfort zone.
As writers, we need to be willing learn about different things, even things we think we aren’t going to like. We become mini-experts on our subjects – in order to report on a financial issue, we may need to take a crash course in fiscal management. In order to write about kids and chicken pox, we may need to learn to use medical terms appropriately in context.
Here are some things to remember when researching articles:
· Find reputable sources. The Internet is about information, but it’s also about mis-information. Be prepared to defend the facts you include in your articles.
· Get to know your local librarian. Find out if your city keeps scrapbooks or archives about local issues and topics.
· Don’t overlook the obvious, like telephone books and city directories. A human source can give you greater insight than an article posted on the Web.
· Get familiar with statistics. Statistics Canada (US equivalent to Fedstats.gov) data has often given me the hook I need to convince an editor that an article will work. For instance, when pitching an article on Netiquette for kids, I was able to point out, “In 2000, 54% of all Canadians had access to the Internet, up 10% from 1998. Of those connected, 79% used their access primarily for email communication.”
· If you’re having trouble wading your way through government sites, a simple call to your Member of Parliament (in the US the office of your senator) is easier and quicker. Part of their job is to help you find the information you need, and can save you tons of time.
Each time we write about what we don’t know, we learn a little more, and become more valuable to editors. We should be willing to research and dig for information, and become well versed in all the different methods available to us.
Shelley Divnich Haggert is a freelance writer, as well as the editor/associate publisher of Windsor Parent Magazine. She is also co-author of the helpful e-book Writing Lessons Learned, We Learned The Hard Way So You Don't Have To! written with Linda Sherwood. For more information about Shelley and Writing Lessons Learned please visit http://www.sherwoodcom.com/book.htm