Write What You Know
This old guideline, “write what you know”, seems like good advice. But is it? Let’s explore the alternative.
Writing what you know may be the right way to go for new writers who don’t want to add research, collecting information, and interviewing to the new discipline of writing, editing, and rewriting. And besides, you’ve always wanted to write that book about …
This may be a good idea. If you have a burn to write, it’s probably because you have or had some experience with the subject matter, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. And you want to share this with the world, or at least a small part of it. And because you’re a unique individual, your perspective will bring a new or different light on that subject or experience.
But there’s a flip side to this advice, because even if you’re a new writer, you should still be able to learn something new, whether you write it well or not the first time out. And you may find that getting out of your comfort zone makes you a more exciting author. The reason is that you bring a fresh viewpoint to the subject you’ve chosen to write about, while the other authors on this topic are probably following the “write what you know about” theory.
So, how would you get started? Here are some ideas:
- Since you don’t know anything, or at least maybe not much, about the subject you’ve chosen or been asked to write about, set about finding one or more resources. These may be people or documents. Create a to-do list, a calendar, make phone calls, schedule visits, make appointments, etc. If the visits are with people, let the person at the other end know why you’re calling and what you need, and why you’d like to spend some of their valuable time together.
- The internet is a great resource to start with. These days, it almost doesn’t matter what the subject is, you’ll probably find an incredible storehouse of information, much of it factual and useful, but some not so. Be careful, and double-check what you choose to use. And if you don’t use all the information you collect, save it; you may end up using it for something on the topic later on, maybe with a new perspective.
- Keep those scheduled appointments. Be prepared with a list of questions you need answered. Create a blank outline of items to fill in. If the visit is with a person, tell him or her that you’re new to the subject. Being up front will often cause the person you’re meeting with to be more open and honest—and helpful. One really great question to ask is, “Is there anything else I should have asked?”
- Take a camera or your cell phone. Whether you’ll be looking at documents, people, or processes, it’s often helpful to take photographs. But first and foremost, ask for permission.
- If you collect statements or quotes from people, ask if it’s okay to use their remarks and their name. And make sure that you get the words or the thought right; maybe run it by them briefly, or ask if they want to see what you write before you publish. And be sure that you spell their name correctly, and their position in the organization (as applicable).
Once you go through the above steps once or twice, and you’re comfortable with the process, think about some other subjects that you could explore. Think about something you don’t know about, but would like to learn. Start with step one above, and you’re well on your way.
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