Think you can’t learn anything from watching reality television? Think again. These six reality television shows offer lots of lessons for professional and aspiring writers.
DANCING WITH THE STARS
Airs on ABC
I’ve only watched ABC’s Dancing with the Stars once or twice, but the lesson is simple: With practice and determination, even the most uncoordinated among us can learn to do the Tango. The same is true of writing. Few of us are born with the knowledge and natural ability to sit down and compose the next bestselling novel. However, writing can be learned and improved through the simple acts of writing and revising. Want to be a better writer? Practice, just like the celebrities do on Dancing with the Stars. Work on the elements of good writing. Study great writers and their works. Never give up. And always give it your best shot.
—Lesson from Dancing with the Stars: Practice, practice, practice!
Airs on ABC
During ABC’s Shark Tank, entrepreneurs and inventors stand in front of a panel of five millionaire sharks and offer them opportunities to invest in their budding companies. Though brief, these entertaining presentations are designed to wow the sharks and entice a few of them to make strong partnership offers. Each entrepreneur’s pitch covers what their product is, how they’ve sold it to customers, their profit margins, their sales volume, and their plans for future growth.
Shark Tank pitches are similar to the pitches I send to magazine editors each and every day through query letters. I start my letters with a strong hook paragraph designed to grab an editor’s attention. I outline why my idea is a perfect fit for their magazine. I define the word count of my article, what I will include in the piece, and when I can send them the finished product. I also include a little about myself and why I am the perfect writer to write the article. My letters are both professional and entertaining.
Want to amp up your pitches to editors, agents, and publishers? Watch an episode or two of Shark Tank and pay special attention to how each entrepreneur engages the sharks. Notice all the idioms they include in their presentations.
—Lesson from Shark Tank: Make your pitches both professional and entertaining.
Airs on Fox
Actually, writers can learn two lessons from American Idol. We’ve all seen those contestants—those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, yet they stand in front of the judges and belt out their favorite ballad as if they have a voice like Taylor Swift or Glen Campbell. Being tone deaf doesn’t stop these contestants from singing. They love to sing, so they sing. So the first lesson from American Idol is this: If you love to write, then write. You don’t have to be the next Harper Lee or Stephen King to find immense pleasure in writing.
The second lesson from the show comes from a phrase that is batted around on almost every episode: Make it your own. Some of the contestants have a knack for taking a common song and singing it in a way that makes it sound fresh, artsy, and relevant. In writing, so many of us have similar thoughts and opinions, but we have different ways of expressing our points. The key to interesting writing is to find and unleash your unique writer’s voice. Think about what you want to say and make it your own. But remember, when you put yourself, or your writing, out there for the public to read, some people will offer up judgement, and it won’t always be positive.
—Lessons from American Idol: Write because you love to write, make your writing your own, and learn to accept criticism.
ALASKAN BUSH PEOPLE
Airs on the Discovery Channel
A film crew follows the daily lives of Billy and Ami Brown and their seven mostly-grown children, as the family lives off the land in a remote region of Alaska. For the most part, they live without the luxuries of electricity and running water. They barter. They build things. They hunt, fish, and forage for food.
The Browns work together to survive. They’re a cohesive tribe, and everyone seems to have a specialty. For example, Noah is the inventor of the backwoods bunch, and the other family members rave about his intelligence and creativity. Gabe is the powerhouse, and when the Browns face a task that calls for brute strength, Gabe is elected to take the lead. Bear climbs trees. Snowbird, the oldest daughter, is the sharp shooter of the family. They support one another and celebrate each other’s strengths.
Like the Browns, I, too, have found a tribe—a tribe of other writers. Some are authors and have books they actively promote, while others write poetry, daily Christian devotions, fan fiction, etc. A few of my friends are editors. And I even have a few writers in my tribe that freelance for magazines, like I do. We are all different with different goals, but we stick together, encourage one another, and help promote each other’s work.
If you don’t already have writer friends, I encourage you to find a tribe. Get out there and meet other writers. Join a local writers group or guild. Attend a writers conference. Network. Share experiences. Encourage one another. Offer your help. Ask for advice. You’ll find great joy and satisfaction in sharing, collaborating, and forming friendships with people who love and appreciate writing the way you do.
—Lesson from Alaskan Bush People: Find a tribe of writers and participate.
Airs on the Discovery Channel
Each episode of Gold Rush follows three crews as they mine for gold. One of the crews is led by Todd Hoffman, a character known for his poor decision-making skills. He’s big, hairy, dirty, and broke, but still, I find Todd appealing. I’ve pondered this appeal for weeks, and I think I finally know why I love Todd: He’s an eternal optimist. In the second season, he missed a lease payment on Porcupine Creek and lost his claim to Dakota Fred. But instead of declaring defeat and heading home, Todd scurried and found another claim—Quartz Creek—and mined a respectable ninety-three ounces of gold from the ground. In the fourth season, Todd led his guys to Guyana, and after mining barely two ounces of gold and a dozen minuscule diamonds, he was forced to pick up and go home in shame. Still, Todd and his crew regrouped and returned this past season, more determined than ever.
My point is this—Todd Hoffman may find himself battered and exhausted at the bottom of a deep hole without a ladder,a rope, or a friend, but the following day, he picks himself up, makes one of his trademark motivational speeches, and claws his way back to the surface for the next round.
As a freelance writer, I encounter lots of setbacks and frustration. I go for days without a “yes,” a decent assignment, or a book sale. This rejection, along with the constant criticism and the low pay writers receive for their work, can be downright demoralizing at times. As I fall asleep some nights, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” But the following day, I channel Todd Hoffman. I get out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and face the day with new resolve.
—Lesson from Gold Rush: Learn to shake off disappointments and keep moving toward your goal.
Airs on CBS
For fifteen years, Survivor has captivated viewers with its recipe for certain disaster—throw a bunch of strangers from all walks of life on an island far away from civilization, starve them, make them compete in bizarre challenges, and watch as one man or woman outlasts the others. Many times, the strongest and the most competent of the contestants are voted off before the end. Sometimes, sane contestants have melt downs while the camera is running. It takes a lot to be a contender on Survivor. You have to outwit, outplay, outlast.
In my freelancing experience, I’m not always the best writer or the most experienced writer, but I am one of the hungriest and most determined. I keep pitching ideas. I continuously look for opportunities to work, promote my books, and sell my writing. Like the sole survivor, I outlast my competition. I stay in the game without letting the game break me, and you should, too.
—Lesson from Survivor: Outlast your competition and do what you have to do to stay in the game of writing.
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