Write About What You Don’t KnowPosted: October 5, 2007
We’ve all heard the advice: write about what you know.
I like to turn that around and say: write about what you don’t know.
If I wrote only about what I know, I fear my bylines would be few. Although some writers can write profusely about family, pets, work or whatever draws their interests, I probably would run out of article ideas in a short time. That may be why many freelancers take a wider view in vying for bylines and checks with our names on them.
Also, there’s no possible way for most writers to know beforehand all the subjects we write about. Part of the fun of freelancing is being introduced to new and exciting subjects. We don’t have to possess specialized knowledge. We just have to know where to find it. We usually gather background and related information, but we gain most of our knowledge by interviewing experts in the subject we’re covering.
That’s not to say that writers can’t have specialized knowledge of their own. Some writers build careers around their love for a sport, hobby or avocation. Or they write so extensively at their jobs or about their own particular interests that they become experts. They are good at writing about what they know.
I know a writer who is a whiz about taxes (he’s also a CPA), so that’s his writing specialty. Two healthcare writer that I know carved out successful careers in that specialty. They became experts by interviewing healthcare practitioners and scientists for years and writing articles based on those interviews. Some writers acquire so much specialized knowledge that they may be recruited to write books in their area of expertise.
While it might seem that specialists are in the catbird seat, the rest of us need not despair. There’s plenty of room for generalists. We can write about anything or everything that interests us. I fell into the write-what-you-don’t-know category years ago. Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve covered as a freelancer, with scant prior knowledge of any of the topics: robots, fashion photography, dermatology, literacy programs, the lumber industry, manufacturing telephones, AIDS, earthquakes, environmental landscaping, science, renewable energy resources, coon dogs, antiques, printing — and that’s just a partial list.
I did not come up with ideas for those articles. Sometimes a local editor would phone to offer an assignment, and often serendipity played a part. Maybe someone read one of my articles in AdWeek or a local business newspaper and made an assignment based on that work. I did not have to submit clips or write queries, which certainly made my job easier.
However our assignments come, we generalists find joy in writing about this wide world and the wonderful things taking place in it, and about the people who make those things happen. We might not know much in the beginning, but we learn a lot in the process. We are never bored with the subjects we cover or the people we meet.
Tramping around a factory floor, poking into someone’s basement to learn the secrets of growing award-winning African violets, touring a candy factory, interviewing a poetry-writing banker, delving into commercial stock photography, talking to mature adults just learning to read — who could be bored with such a job!
Writing about what we don’t know opens us up to new ideas and expands our universe. Every article that we write can be a learning opportunity and a great adventure.
Please leave a comment.