by Kelley Lindberg
Today I’m dipping into the ol’ email-bag, and coming up with the following question from a reader: “What did you do to get over the anxiety relating to your first task as a writer?”
I assume tackling your first writing assignment is much like parachuting for the first time (although I doubt there will ever be a first time parachuting for me, barring the odd airplane disaster) – at some point you simply grit your teeth and jump.
After I’d been writing software books for years, I decided to step off the software train and start writing for general interest magazines instead. One of my first “real” articles was on home theater systems. This was years ago, when home theaters were new and primarily the domain of rich folks. The magazine editor (who was a college buddy of mine I’d just reconnected with) said, “I’d love to have you write for us. I need an article on home theaters. Can you do it?”
I said yes, then panicked. I realized I’d be writing about something I had no knowledge of. But the editor had a particular vendor in mind to interview, so I screwed up my courage and called the guy. He invited me to his showroom, gave me a tour and a bunch of information, and I was off and running.
If you have to interview someone for a story or article, and you’re nervous about it, remember this:
Everyone loves to talk about their passion. Everyone.
Also, it helps to admit you’re not an expert in the topic you’re writing about (unless you are, of course). If you pretend you know more about your topic than you do, you’ll make more mistakes and look like a fool when you realize you can’t write the piece adequately, and you’ll have to embarrass yourself by calling the person back and admitting you didn’t know as much as you though you did. (Calling back for clarification or new information is different – that’s definitely okay and not embarrassing – but calling back to admit you screwed up is bad.)
So I told the home theater designer up front I didn’t know anything about movie theaters. Then I reminded him (and myself) that neither did my audience, so I had to make all this information clear to the average Joe. He was more than happy to start at the beginning and lead me through step-by-step, knowing that he wasn’t just talking to me, he was talking to his target customers.
This “okay to be a novice” approach has always worked for me. No one is ever mad that I’m a novice in their field. They are used to novices – novices are their audience and their customers. So they are happy to teach me. (And after I wrote about home theaters, the same editor asked me to write about home automation – also an embryonic field – so I must have done okay with the home theater story. And I resold the home automation story to a magazine in Colorado, so again… I must have done okay.)
Writing for a magazine audience is not that much different from speaking to a single friend, when it comes to sharing information. Here’s why:
- You only tell a friend a story if it’s really interesting. (And you can make almost any story interesting, right?)
- You always start your story with a statement that gets their attention (the “hook”): “Dude, did you hear our favorite pizza joint burned down last night?”
- After the hook, you fill in the details: “Yeah, I heard one of the cooks was smoking cigarettes out back and tossed one into a pile of greasy pizza boxes, and the whole thing just blew up! I guess there were three fire trucks there, but it turns out no one got hurt, so that’s good. Sad about all those pizzas, though.”
You do this every day, all day long, don’t you? At work, at school, at lunch, at home, on the phone, on Facebook…If you’re human, wherever you are, you’re sharing stories. It’s what we do.
If you keep reminding yourself that you’re just telling some new friends this awesome story about this new thing you just learned about, it will become easier to put the story into words. You may still be a little nervous now and again, but more importantly – you’ll also be published.