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Planning Retirement Online

Writer's Block: Getting Started

Many of us have secretly dreamt of becoming best-selling novelists, although realistically that is something we accept may not come to pass. However, getting a piece of writing in print based on facts or opinions is well within most people's grasp, as long as they can write something that other people want to read. For every novel or magazine short story that gets published, think of the huge number of books, articles, web pages and column inches devoted to non-fiction. Somebody has to write them - so why not you?

For example, have you ever thought about writing a:

  • biography
  • history of a family, place or institution
  • instructional guide
  • joke book
  • travelogue
  • in-depth study of anything of interest
  • textbook
  • humorous column
  • confessional story
  • review?

There are a number of different types of material that new writers should be able to produce and these include letters to newspapers or magazines, short pieces known as fillers and even entire articles and books. As long as any work is carefully planned and well written, why shouldn't yours be the one they publish?

Over the next few months, I will be introducing you to some of the techniques you could employ to help you improve your writing and get into print. You may even end up earning from your new hobby and perhaps turning it into a second career.

My own experience is based on over 20 years as an author, publishing a number of non-fiction books as well as many magazine letters and articles, web material and courses. I currently work as a non-fiction tutor at The Writers' Bureau.

What To Write About?

It's all very well writing from the heart, but after you've written that one article or book on a subject that really means something to you, what next? And what if you are someone who enjoys writing but doesn't have any particular axe to grind? In fact, professional writers tend to be rather indiscriminate in that they can write about (almost) anything as long as they find a slant or angle that appeals to them.

So if we imagine you don't have a definite topic in mind, here are two different approaches to finding something to write about:

a) Identify the knowledge, experience or interests you have that you might enjoy writing about (often referred to as "writing about something you know")

b) Respond to something you read, see or hear about or an idea that just arrives

Later in the series I will look in greater depth at self-discovery as a way to identify topics, but here are a few book titles related to some of these ideas to show you what I mean:

  • Your current or previous jobs e.g. "Successful Property Letting" (David Lawrenson)
  • Hobbies e.g. "The Art of Photography" (Al Judge)
  • Academic subjects you have studied e.g. "Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese" (ShaoLan and Noma Bar)
  • Places you have lived or visited e.g. "Brit Guide to Orlando 2014" (Simon and Susan Verness)
  • Being a parent e.g. "First Time Parent" (Lucy Atkins)
  • Your pets e.g. "The Pet Gundog" (Les Graham)
  • Experiences e.g. "Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital" (Philip Hoare)

Find the angle

Whatever subject matter you decide to write about, the one mistake that many novice writers make is to write everything they can on the subject. Particularly for a short article, this is clearly unacceptable, but even a book has to have a theme or message. Otherwise, you won't know what point you want to make in each chapter or section, or what conclusions you are hoping to draw.

For example, imagine you have decided to cover the topic of obesity in later life. Here are five completely different approaches you might take:

  1. Confessional or personal story - how the author brought his/her own weight down. It could cover researching diets or other programmes, diary extracts, recipes, humorous stories of failure, how the author stayed motivated etc.
  2. Technical and fact-based piece - lots of statistical information about numbers of people and their weight at different ages, changes over the last few decades, clothing measurement averages, government policies etc and where we have got to now.
  3. How-to guide - similar to (1) but, crucially, NOT a personal story but one aimed universally at all readers giving them a clear and logical approach to losing weight, perhaps putting across the pros and cons of various diet plans available.
  4. Controversial opinion - why it is a myth that people are obese, how it is all the fault of the media and why people should be happy about their own body shape.
  5. A piece for teenagers - this might include advice on how to avoid obesity by starting early to eat well, keep fit etc and also to discount the media fixation with body image.

As you can see, the contents, writing style and whole approach in any article, letter or book needs to be very different for each of these five different viewpoints.

Next time, Jackie will look at the types of publication you might write for. Meanwhile, if you have any writing queries, please send them to her at

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