“Write what you know.” 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.
But 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. For novelists, authenticity comes from exploring ideas and emotions they know and understand. Even when constructing worlds entirely imagined and never found in reality, writers must be true to real human feelings. Write what you know to be true; the rest is detail.
- We’d have a lot fewer real journalists and a serious shortage of copywriters creating meaningful content. These writers must understand the subjects they’re writing about – one of the reasons I’ll probably never touch financial or technical subjects – but they don’t have to be part of the world they’re writing about in order to write effectively about it.
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 my main source, content creation expert John Bonini, for making the analogy that good content requires “reporters, not columnists.”)
How to Get to Know What You Know
From my early years as a newspaper reporter, 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 also lets your readers confirm the information if they choose. Vague citations of “experts” and “insiders” only make the eader question your honesty.
Research and write like a reporter and you could just create something that means something.
Tip of the Week: 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 whom I will offer the job to”?
“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.