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How To Outgrow Write What You Know By Jenna Glatzer
Every writer has heard it time and again, and it’s not without
merit: “Write what you know.”
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 didn’t feel qualified.
Luckily, I didn’t let that hold me back for too long.
“Write what you know” is a very good starting point. But that’s
all it is. It’s 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 it’s
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
If I had completely disregarded “Write what you know” and simply
opened a page of the Writers Market at random, figuring I’d 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 hated it.
I have no experience with any of the above topics, and there’s 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 you’ve encountered
that you wanted solved? Now those are article topics.
Try this exercise. Fill in the blanks with your answers.
1. If time and money weren’t factors, I’d love to take a course
2. I’ve always wanted to ask (person you
know)______________________ about _________________________.
3.I’ve always wanted to know how __________________________ works.
4. My life would improve if I could only
5. When I have a sleepless night, it’s usually because I’m 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 me.
9. In my life, I have overcome ___________________________________________.
10. If I could volunteer for just one cause, it would be
11. I wish I were better at ___________________________________.
12. I have always wondered why _________________________________________.
You may have lots of answers for each statement. That’s great!
Each answer is a possible article topic. Most of them won’t be
specific enough (or perhaps too specific) for an article, but
they should give you lots of new starting points from which to
Think of freelance writing as your own opportunity to learn
about all the things you ever wanted to know, and don’t worry if
you’re not yet an “expert” in any of these areas! Among my
favorite writing assignments have been topics in which I had no
-An article about a woman who started her own greeting cardbusiness for Woman’s Own. Of course, I’ve never started my owngreeting card business—but the topic certainly interested me,
and I wanted a good excuse to learn more about it.
-An article about how “media overload” affects children’s
development for KidsGrowth.com. I’m not even a parent, let alone
an expert in child psychology. But I’ve always wondered how
increasing media immersion (TV, Internet, video games, radio,
etc.) has affected people in MY generation.
-An article about book packagers for Writer’s Digest. Okay, I
had written for a book packager at that point-- but 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. And If not for this article, I
would never have written Celine Dion's book... I sent my resume
and samples to one of the packagers I interviewed, and an editor
there wound up calling me years later with the assignment!
-Several articles about interesting inventions for Zooba.com.
How much fun did I have learning about how Velcro, aspirin, and
Post-It Notes 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
-Every disabilities-related article I’ve 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 learn-- new legislation for people with disabilities,
profiles of amazing people with disabilities, issues of
When working to broaden your writing horizons, be sure to think
about two things: your passions, and your curiosities. You don’t
need to write only about topics that mean “everything” to you;
you can-- and should-- also 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 there’s a way to stop all
that junk mail and those telemarketing calls from darkening your
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 passions.
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 them!
You don’t 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 that’s one of the great things about
writers-- we’re such curious creatures.
Write what you want to know, and soon enough, it’ll be what you
(pick up a FREE list of
agents looking for new writers!) and
the author of 14 books, including MAKE A REAL LIVING AS A
FREELANCE WRITER, which comes with a FREE Editors' Cheat Sheet.
Celine Dion's authorized biographer. Visit Jenna at http://www.jennaglatzer.com