Regular readers of this blog know that I often suggest that new writers start off pitching ideas that they already have some personal experience or background knowledge of. Demonstrating that you’re, as I say, “uniquely qualified,” to write a particular article or blog post boosts your chances of getting an assignment.
Sometimes you may want to demonstrate this experience by using a first-person lead or personal anecdote in the article itself. But when is it appropriate to insert yourself into a story, and when should remain a reporter alone? In other words, when you’re writing a piece, when should you play both writer and source?
With some types of writing, it’s pro forma to share your experiences with your readers. Take a personal memoir or essay, where the piece itself springs from something that’s happened to you. But for a reported article, inserting yourself may be unnecessary at best, distracting at worst.
That's why many editors don't want a writer to use first-person anecdotes or references. If you're not sure whether to share your own experience in a piece, I suggest you do the following:
Consider its impact. In some instances, a first-person anecdote may not work for a particular story. For example, when I wrote about how to avoid employment discrimination claims for a small business magazine, I chose to use real business owners as anecdotes. Yes, I was a lawyer in my former life and had defended these kinds of claims, but I felt that my experience might overshadow the article.
Run it by your editor. Make sure it’s all right with your editor to include yourself before you do so. In several instances, I’ve suggested a first-person lead only to have an editor tell me he prefers me to stay out of the story. For example, when I pitched a piece on how to avoid running injuries, my query included my experience falling and concussing myself during a run. (I’m a klutz.) But my editor at Runner’s World asked that I write a straightforward piece without using any anecdotes, including my own—so that’s what I did.
Consider your duty as a writer. Each of us has our own prejudices, experiences, and biases. If I were to write an article on the pros and cons on having an open adoption, ethically I should disclose the fact that I happen to be a parent who has open adoptions with several of her children’s birth parents. Can I write an objective piece about this subject? Certainly, but I think I would have to reveal my own experience in the piece.
Keep your standards high. Using your own experience in an article is no substitute for conducting research. A common rookie mistake by new freelancers is thinking that because they know something about the subject, they don't need to call on experts or other sources for the story. I suggest you err on the side of over-researching, even if you plan to include a first-person anecdote. That will help you write a balanced piece.
Bottom line? Inserting yourself into a piece isn’t appropriate for every piece you write. But judiciously sharing your own experiences can make your work more compelling, relatable, and marketable.
***Readers, what do you think? Do you use first-person anecdotes or do you avoid them, and why? I welcome your comments.