Sometimes blog posts are so good, so inspired, that they want to grow into other forms. Susan Ito, blogger, editor, writer and writing teacher, will guide a hands-on workshop and show you how to determine if that blog post is destined for greatness as a magazine article or a personal essay, and then how to shape and polish it into a piece that will catch an editor’s attention.
SUSAN: Hello and welcome to Turning Your Blog Post into an Article or Personal Essay. I’m a blogger at foodfoodbodybody.wordpress.com and I’m not a self hosting genius, but I am a writer and people say, “Wait, I thought she was a physical therapist?” I got my BA in physical therapy and masters in creative writing, so I’m really schizophrenic and I do both things. Writing is my passion and love, and I’ve had lots of essays, short stories, magazines, and literary magazines, and I edited an anthology of literary fiction.
I’ve been teaching writing at UC Berkeley extension, Mills college, online through Literary Mama, and elsewhere for about 20 years, so I’ve taught bazillions of writing workshops.
This presentation is about taking your writing to the next level and bringing it to the next level of the best writing it can be. Some of you are just happy to have your blog posts be blog posts and live in the blogosphere, but sometimes you have a post that’s just a really good blog post and people who comment are like, “You should do something with this!” Has anyone ever had that feeling of wanting to take a blog post somewhere else?
So the first thing is that your blog is raw material that can be turned into so many things. There’s so many different things you can do with one blog post, think of your post as a garden, and your posts are the different vegetables, and you can turn those things into salads, soups, casseroles – all these magnificent things with the same carrot. The same is true with your blog material. You can turn one post into so many different things, so envision it and think about how you want to use that material.
There are personal essays, articles, anecdotes, features – does anybody know the difference between a personal essay and an article?
Audience: A personal essay will be more editorial, your own voice, and an article will be more factual based.
In an article you’re teaching somebody something – educating or teaching. Readers who read an article are learning something. In a personal essay, you’re telling a story. And you’re going to really structure your work differently depending on what it is.
Say you’re doing an article trying to teach somebody something. There are things you would include in your article. If you’re turning your piece into an article, a lot of things are statistics, some research, you’re going to find some facts to back up what you’re saying. Say you write a blog post – you wake up and just write a post about your day today. Today I got up and had oatmeal and blueberries and it was awesome. And you write a couple paragraphs about it, or say your posts are already very article-ish because you’re slanting it that way. A lot are just slice of life fitness – what you’re doing.
If you’re going to make it into an article you need to add some things to it. Turn the oatmeal and blueberries into how to fuel before you do a workout, how you do grains, what are antioxidants, what’s prefuel, whats postfuel? You want to have helpful tools and resources. You might turn it into a full-fledged product review.
If you’re having a special kind of oatmeal, if you’re going to talk about a product, you’re going to make references and quotes are often really important. You want to get quotes to back up what you’re saying. Readers like quotes from people who are just like them who they can relate to, and quotes from people who they think know more than they do – expert quotes.
Personal essay themes are when we’re telling a story. These are actually great topics for blog posts as well. Turning points – from that moment on, everything was different. The moment everything changed. Janet has written her whole writing life about turning points. That is a very powerful thing because the before and the after, everything changed. Recovery from injury or illness. Accidents. Complaints. Complaints can actually be a very juicy, where people will have that experience too.
You can feel camaraderie with people who have the same complaints as you. It can be really effective. Crossroads are different than turning points, a turning point can happen voluntarily or involuntarily. A crossroads is when you are making a choice, a crossroads in the road. Forward, left, right, or backwards. That can be a really powerful theme to write about when you’re trying to make a decision. Am I going to sign up for a marathon? Has anybody written about a crossroads decision?
Audience: It was about when I came clean about my anxiety and how I had to quit my job because of it.
I’m sure it was a really powerful post. We all come to a crossroads, like where to go for dinner, or something really big like am I going to quit my job? Am I going to have children, am I going to do something about this relationship? Powerful themes.
Audience: I once wrote a blog that was a letter to myself being honest about how I’ve gotten myself into the situation I was in in terms of fitness, and a note to myself that deep down, I really do believe in myself. Hard to write but good to get it out.
You were at this point of what do I do? Am I going to do this or not?
Letters to somebody that you’ll never send are some of the most powerful pieces of writing that we’ll ever do. A letter to the person in high school who laughed at me. Letter to my gym teacher. Letter to my parent. Letter to my children that I don’t even have yet about how I want them to see me. Letters can be powerful.
Miracles – I finished my triathalon.
Amazing people, often we write about people who inspire us, they can be powerful themes.
Relationships of all kinds. Change, dreams, redemptions, nostalgia and memories. Often when we’re writing a post we can be writing about something completely random and all of a sudden our memory can get tweaked, and I remember when I first put on running shoes. When I first tried to do Zumba and I fell on the floor. Memories and nostalgia are powerful. Life lessons. I actually have life lessons as one of my tags on my blog, something will happen and I say, I learned a real lesson there.
Spiritual growth. First, last, best, worst are great, great topics. We all have our firsts, our first zumba class. Sometimes when we’re doing something we know it’s the last time we’ll ever do it. Often we don’t know until time has gone by, and it can be really poignant. My dad had a really serious surgery and when he came out of it he was a paraplegic. So I wrote a post about the last time I ever walked with him, but I didn’t know it would be the last time he would ever walk. Looking back on the last time that your child asked them to pick them up. Lasts can be really powerful. Best and worst of anything. We do a lot of best ofs, we can also do worst ofs.
We read like readers because we’re readers, but reading like a writer is a different skill. Read it and enjoy it, but after you’re done reading it, turn it over, write on a piece of paper without looking – What are the top 3 things you remember? What did you take out of it? What stood out in that 1000 words, probably a dozen words stood out, and what was that? Why did that stand out, what was it about that particular sentence or image or idea or piece of dialogue or statistic? What stood out? Then after you’ve done that, reread it with a highlighter and think about what the most compelling parts are and why.
This is a way we can start practicing to start educating ourselves about what really works?
Does anybody every take a piece apart and think about why that works?
Audience: I always think about first lines, we read a lot online all the time. Barring your three best friends who you read their blog no matter what, the first line really does hook you in.
First lines are super important, and what do they do after the first line to keep you interested?
I worked at a magazine and they would put the recipes at the end of the magazines? The kicker.
The ending is important as well because that’s what you’re left with. They finish it up, close the book. What do you want to leave them with?
Sensory images are really important. Metaphors – my sneakers smelled like the inside of a wombat’s nostril. Really making your characters be fully rounded.
Using dialogue. What were the exact words that person used? That can be so much more powerful than just summarizing it.
A hook goes straight to the element that makes a reader say, really? Does your first line of your blog post make someone sit up and say really? I want to know more about that, People have very little time and there’s a million articles, books, memoirs, personal essays, and blogs out there. That first line needs to really get in there.
Audience is really important when you are working on an article or personal essay because you have to think about if it’s a general audience. Are you writing for an audience where someone might be fitness oriented and others not, who are you reaching out to and speaking to? Who are you targeting?
Do your homework. I can’t tell you how important it is. Read samples from whatever publication you’re sending to. The words, the tone, the humor. You want to have studied and can imagine your piece in that slot. You want to know that it actually is a good fit. And if you don’t read it, they’ll be able to know.
When you’re developing a long piece, it’s important to really take the time to look at your original piece and do all of these kinds of exercises, don’t just try to make it longer. Doing a mind map is where you write your theme in a circle and you just make clouds that come out – this leads to this, and you never know the streams of consciousness you can include in your piece. Post it notes, get closer, get further away, a great exercise is using “what I really want to say is…” – do a free write on that. Do it again. Often what you really want to say, the most powerful expression is underneath, three levels in. What’s the headline?
Do not say “Dear editor” ever. Ever ever ever. Then that’s a sure thing they don’t know me or my publication. Personalize it, if you’ve had any prior publications include those.
Simultaneous submissions are when you send them to many places at once. You always say up front, I’m dating other people. I just want you to know. Then you have to tell the other people that you’re doing it. You have to be honest.
Say you send the same piece to 5 editors. You have to immediately notify the other 4 editors that someone took it. I had a piece and the smaller anthology accepted it right away, and I was like, uh oh. I really want to hold out for the bigger one. I really had a preference. And I didn’t say anything, and the bigger anthology also accepted it. And I had to write to the smaller one and I feel really bad about it, but I was a beginning writer and I didn’t know. So I withdrew from the first anthology. And my name was pooed for a long time after that.
If there’s one you really want, just do a single submission. Approach your submission as you would a job. Be sincere, do not write your entire life story.
Don’t give your life history in your bio, it should be two sentences at the most. Three lines. Some people’s bios are like their memoirs.
If you get a rejection, never write back unless it’s to say thanks for your time. Don’t ever argue with them or say you’re dumb for not taking my piece. We already feel bad, editors feel bad, and I probably reject 85 percent of the things that I get, for space reasons and stuff is not that good.
WritersMarket.com is a fabulous amazing resource. How much do they pay, who is the editor, what is the word count – it makes it all easy in one place.
Here’s what you’re going to do:
You’re going to think about one of your blog posts and summarize it in one sentence. Then you’re going to do a brainstorm of three ways this can be an article. Is it a first, a best, a last, a worst, a how-to, a review – what is it?
And then you’re going to take the same post to a personal essay. Is there a story in here?
Write a hook, the most fabulous first line ever.
Then you’re going to make sure you have the five senses represented in that piece. Is there something smelly in that piece? Is there some incredible visual? How about sound, we often forget about describing sound. Food, taste? And texture, it’s the most underwritten about sense that there is.
Dialogue. Write at least 3 lines of dialogue.
Think about your kicker, your last sentence, what will your reader be left with at the very end? The two sentences you’ll work the hardest on are the first and last sentences.