Advice From the Pros

Think Local, Write Global

Learn how to scour the local news and spot universal trends

The Internet has democratized the writing process like never before. You can now read the international editions of newspapers and magazines online, even if you live several oceans away from the nerve center of its publication. And the good news is that you can write for it too!  

Here’s how you can hone your storytelling skills and reach out to a wider world of opportunities.

Find a Worthy Protagonist  

Converting local ideas into articles that would appeal to an international audience may seem overwhelming at first, but it can give your writing income and experience a much-needed shot in the arm.

The critical question is: how can you get an editor based in another country to care about local issues that you badly want to highlight but may be far removed from their readers’ lives? According to Didem Tali, an award-winning multimedia journalist who has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, Al Jazeera, BBC World Service, The Guardian, Irish Times and others, the key to doing this effectively lies in spotting a strong protagonist, one with universal appeal.

Draw your editor (and your reader) into the story by making them care about this character and the remarkable circumstances of his/her life. Our life experiences may be vastly different, but emotions are universal after all.

“Humanize your story as much as possible,” she says. “You can do this by mindfully listening to the people you interview. A reader in another country may not appear to have a lot in common with a rural Cambodian woman, but once they realize that this is a real flesh-and-blood person, they will be drawn into the story they’re reading.”

While interviewing a community of people, be wary of power structures even within the community. “There will always be a talkative person who has more to say and it is easier to have an easygoing interview. However, always make an effort to interview that shy 18-year-old woman in the corner as well. You might be surprised with the color they add to your story and how their views might differ,” says Tali.

Scour the Local News, Spot Universal Trends

Prathap Nair is a writer and photographer based in Stuttgart, Germany. He writes on travel, food, culture, environment and current affairs and has contributed to the Pacific Standard, BBC, The Guardian, Ensia, Korean Air’s Morning Calm magazine and others. “Having recently moved to Germany, my knowledge of the language is less than desirable,” he says. “Yet, I scour the local news websites for any breaking news stories and put the important ones through Google Translate to see if they will be of interest for an international publication.” He recently sold one such article—about two Stuttgart residents suing the city’s mayor for doing not enough to curb air pollution—to the Guardian. As in Nair’s case, an interesting and current local news peg that highlights universal issues such as pollution and the environment can sometimes help catapult a story into the international limelight. “Look for local issues that would resonate with a global audience,” he says.

Change the way you travel

If you have an opportunity to travel, make the most of it. Writing about unique travel experiences can open the doors to a slew of international publications. I do a lot of travel/adventure and food writing, so I really try to demonstrate the unique activities, natural wonders and cuisines of a region. I highlight dishes and experiences that a person can’t find anywhere else and tell a story through a local’s eyes to give a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a place,” says journalist Davina van Buren, who has written for publications outside of the US since 2015 and who describes herself as a digital nomad. Most recently, she spent a year in Tulum, Mexico, where she lived and worked from a one-room ‘cuarto’ while immersing herself in Yucatan culture.

It helps to record your travel experiences, even if you don’t have an assignment just yet, says Prathap Nair. “During my travels, I take copious notes and record quotes during conversation with sources that I think would be useful for a story at a later date. This habit of mine helped immensely for an article I recently wrote for a magazine about Sri Lankan jackfruit.” Nair was able to report the story from his home in Germany, once he pitched and landed an assignment for an in-flight magazine in South Korea after he’d returned from Sri Lanka.

Release Prejudices and Preconceived Notions

It’s easy to have assumptions about people before you actually interview them, but letting go of these preconceived notions is important for your growth as a writer, especially if you want your writing to appeal beyond the boundaries of your own backyard. “I’d urge any emerging reporter to make a conscious effort to leave their assumptions behind and truly listen to people,” says Tali. This would involve shedding age-old prejudices too.

Cut Through the Clutter on Twitter

Mining social media for work isn’t unusual in the era in which we live. Cutting through the clutter however is important. “Twitter can seem overwhelming at first but it begins to make sense if you use an app like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite,” says Chryselle D’Silva Dias, a writer based in Goa, India who has contributed to publications such as TIME, The Atlantic, Vice, The Guardian, Telegraph and others.

“This breaks up the never-ending stream of tweets into ‘columns’ which you can customize and use to keep track of specific things. For instance, I have columns that follow certain editors, or groups that give me ideas for stories or even search terms like “call for pitches” or “writers wanted”. Use this not only to find new work but also engage with editors and other writers,” she says.

You will have to be a certain level of tech savvy to make it as a freelancer, especially on an international scale.  Learn how to build a social media strategy and hone your multimedia skills.

However, there is no substitute for words on the page, says Van Buren. “Don’t get so caught up in the apps and blogs and newsletters that you forget the crux of what you are doing: storytelling,” she says. “No matter what you are writing, in the end, it’s all storytelling.”

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