It may be the oldest and the best piece of advice ever given to writers; you’ve probably been hearing it since your first high school English teacher assigned you a theme.
“Write what you know.”
What does it mean?
Here’s what it doesn’t mean:
It doesn’t mean dealing only with facts and situations you’ve personally experienced. If it did, we’d have:
- A lot less fiction, especially science fiction.
- A lot fewer journalists.
- A serious shortage of copywriters creating meaningful content.
The rule should be “Write what you know to be true.”
For novelists, authenticity doesn’t come only from writing about things that have happened to them or places they’ve been, but from exploring ideas and emotions they know and understand.
Journalists and copywriters must understand the subjects they’re writing about, but they don’t have to be part of the world they’re writing about in order to write effectively about it. That’s what research is for.
Write what you know to be true; the rest is detail.
When writing content on topics you want your readers to know about, you need to research the subject matter like an investigative journalist. You may have an interesting personal take on your subject, but your readers want information; they care about facts, not your opinion about those facts. (I’ll thank content creation expert John Bonini for making the analogy that good content requires “reporters, not columnists.”)
How to Get to Know What You Know
Here’s how you can get to know your subject so you can write what you actually know:
- Look for original research – also known as primary sources. If you find something interesting in an article online, don’t take the writer’s word for what they say (which would verge on plagiarism anyway). Go to the actual source material.
- Be unique. Find something new to say that will intrigue and engage your readers rather than make them think, “Oh, that again” as they click off.
- Be skeptical. If a headline looks too good to be true – the latest wacky crime or scientific finding – consider the source. It could be a satirical site or simply an irresponsible one. One good clue is the site’s name. The less serious the name, the less reliable it’s likely to be.
- Summon your inner Bob Woodward and use two sources to confirm every fact.
- Name the sources you use. This will not only add credibility but will also let your readers confirm the information if they choose. Vague citations of “experts” and “insiders” only make the reader question your honesty.
Research and write like a reporter and you could just create something that means something.
Bonus Tip: When in Doubt, Weasel Out
Stuck on whether to use “who” or “whom”? Not sure if you’re obeying some other grammar rule?
Follow my never-fail solution: When in doubt, weasel out.
Just rewrite the sentence to completely duck the question.
Is it “John is the person who I will offer the job to” or “John is the person to whom I will offer the job”?
“Who” or “whom”? It doesn’t have to be either one.
“I will offer the job to John.”
It gets you out of the quandary – not to mention just being less clunky.
Next time, remember: When in doubt, weasel out.