Public Writing for Authors

How do you wade into the discourse? And do you even want to?

Updated March 2022

Authors have opportunities to write for the public in shorter forms—essays in magazines, blog posts, and more. In fact, we are often encouraged to as a way to gain publicity for our books. But you might wonder how you go about writing these shorter pieces—what would you write about? And you might wonder whether you should.

In my first novel, Entanglement (which came out in 2015), the hero (Timmy) and heroine (Greta) end up working together in a niche company owned by the hero, called Pacific Production Lighting. Pac Lighting owns hundreds of stage lights, thousands of meters of cable, many lighting control boards, hundres of meters of truss (along with the motors to hang the truss from event spaces), and more. When Greta, the heroine, first enters Pac Lighting’s warehouse, she’s awestruck by the huge space and the amount of gear.

At readings, audience members often asked me how on earth I knew so much about such a unique business. I seemed to know an awful lot about the lights and cable and such. How much research did I do? they asked. My answer: I did only a little—My husband owns a company very similar to Timmy’s, which he formed way back in the early 2000s.

To create Timmy’s company, I just used a preexisting database in my head (and in my husband’s head), put the company on the West Coast instead the East Coast, and Pac Lighting was born. As novelists know, that’s how you use your pre-existing expertise in your fiction.

But whether you’re an author or not, you can use your preexisting expertise in other kinds of writing, this is, “public writing.” Public writing is writing for online magazines, websites, even your own blog. Writing books is long, slow work. Public writing is zippy, and if there’s money, it may be small, but it comes quickly.

How to Get Started

Here are some steps to help you get started writing for the public using your pre-existing expertise.

Step 1. Make a list of your expertise.

I’m going to go out on a skinny limb and guess that you have either a profession or a hobby that you are super knowledgable about. You have vast amounts of information in your brain about niche subjects. That’s because everyone has something that she is really geeky about. You’re a carpentry geek. A pottery geek. A backyard farming geek. A knitting geek.

You need to start by making a list of the things that you are geeky about. Here are some questions to get you started:

(1) What are you an expert in? (Don’t be humble.)

(2) What do you read about for fun?

(3) What could you write about as an expert with little extra work on your part?

As you jot down your areas of expertise, start jotting down possible topics that you might want to write about. These are areas that you might have researched recently to solve a problem in your own life, or areas that you wish you knew more about.

Here are some examples of hobbies paired with possible topics:

(1) Your backyard chicken coop. Possible geeky topics: Designs of coops. Heirloom chicken breeds. Best kinds of feed. Should you sell your eggs to local restaurants or markets, and how.

(2) Your compost bin. Possible geeky topics: Designs of bins. How to use your compost. What to compost and why. Composting debates. What to do if your neighbors hate your compost bin. What if you have pets. How to keep pests away.

(3) The deck you built on your home. Possible geeky topics: Best materials for certain parts of the country. Nails vs. screws. Composite vs. wood. Deck design features.

(4) Parenting. Possible geeky topics: Everything.

You topic doesn’t have to be a hobby though. It can also be your profession. Some people don’t know that I’m trained as a lawyer and am licensed to practice in my home state. That means that whenever some public legal SNAFU arises in an area in which I’m interested, I research it and pitch a story on it. A lot of you have professional experience in other areas: Advertising. Sales. Production lighting. Whatever it is, add your professional expertise to your list. If you can break your professional expertise down into sub-categories, that’s even better. You’re aiming to make as long a list as possible.

After you make your list of expertise and possible topics, you need to figure out who would be interested in reading what you have to say about these areas. Remember: Every single interest in this world has an industry behind it that serves that interest. Furthermore, that industry has literature. Even furthermore, that industry has companies. And those companies have writing needs. You just have to find your targets.

Step 2. Find your targets.

I have a question for you. When you were building your deck/chicken coop/compost bin, did you read any magazines or blogs to help you get started? Do you still read those media? As you can probably imagine, those specialty magazines and blogs need people to write for them. They need you to write for them — they just don’t know it yet.

Thus, your next step is to come up with a list of target publications for each of the areas of expertise that you listed in Step 1.

Don’t forget to look at trade magazines. If you recently had to help your heirloom chickens through some health problems with the aid of your veterinarian, you could pitch a story to a veterinary or local farming trade magazine.

Then there are company websites. You could look for in-house blogger or copywriter jobs. Websites like post links to jobs like these—there are more, and they crop up all the time.

Mostly, I get my professional writing jobs through networking. That means you need to let people know what you are an expert in. You should probably have a website, and you should probably have a blog where you occasionally write about what you are geeky about.

Once you’ve compiled your list of targets to go with your areas of expertise, it’s time for Step 3.

Step 3. Find your angles.

Your job is to find new things to say about your areas of expertise. The only way to know what other people are already saying is to read what’s out there. Once you’ve read what’s out there, you can figure out new things to say, that is, new angles.

Here are some suggestions for researching public writing in the area you want to write in:

  • Use a search engine. Search as though you were looking for your own article that you haven’t written yet. You will likely find articles similar to ones you want to write. That’s okay! You will cite them in your own writing.
  • Use Twitter (the best social media app for public writing). On Twitter, people share articles they enjoyed. You can use the search bar to search your subject matter. People also tweet on topics like yours, and you can find out who other experts are, including the leading experts. THEN, go find what those leading experts have written.

After you’ve done your research in an area, start brainstorming. This is really the time to not hold back. Let your brain go free. Write down every crazy idea for a story that comes to your head. You want to have ten so you can pick the best one.

(But you might end up publishing all ten, so don’t lose track of them.)

Go back and research what’s already been written. If someone has written the exact same story, think about ways you can build on what they’ve written. But you MUST cite others. Citing other writers is imperative in public writing. Just wait till someone cites you. It feels great.

At this point, you have identified areas of expertise that you already possess. (These are called your “beats,” by the way.) You will have identified places where you want to publish the piece you write (your targets). You will have come up with tangible writing projects.

You are already a writer who can put words together well, so with a little practice, writing good copy won’t be a problem for you.

What to Do Next: Pitch Your Stories

Now: How do you get those stories into the hands of editors?

You must learn how to pitch articles and interact professionally with editors. There are many good articles out there with instructions for how to do so. I wrote this one in a magazine, and it’s a good introduction.

Writing short pieces, especially online, is fast, and often satisfying, work, and a great way to balance out longer projects.

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You can find more Pryal on Writing columns as I update them and write new ones starting in 2021.

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