“…the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open.”
In a New York Times Book Review column of “Bookends," Zoe Heller and Mohsin Hamid took on the question of whether one should “write what one knows.”
If you were ever a child in elementary school, or a high school student taking a composition class, a college kid trudging through a writing gen-ed requirement, or heck just not living under a rock, then chances are you’ve heard the writing adage: “Write what you know.”
Heller recalled first receiving the note when, in grade school, she’d written a short story about an 18th century highwayman—a story little fingers had written without much research. Her teacher was not saying that, in order to write about robbing a stagecoach, Heller had to have actually robbed one herself. Instead, she could have done a little research into what that robbery might require, or even what those characters would have worn, or perhaps read another story about life in the 18th century.
Nathan Englander, most recently the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, told BigThink.com about his take on “Write what you know.” Especially as a kid growing up in suburbia, he said, he was so worried about how limiting the advice is. Instead, “It’s empathic advice. It’s advice about feeling… Have you known happiness? Have you ever been truly sad? Have you ever longed for something?”
You know it. You can write about it.
“Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, more confident and, as a result, stronger results.” – Ben Yagoda.
But aside from literature or fiction how can we extrapolate on this idea?
In our time as print journalists, we had to become savvy on a variety of topics very quickly. Often we started with a very basic understanding of the topic—fracking, the appeals process in federal court, cutting weight in wrestling, Title IX. By the time we sat down to write the story for tomorrow’s paper, we needed to be experts and reliable and accurate sources of information for readers.
The process required lots of research and interviews with people who did know about the topic. We transformed that knowledge into stories that readers would understand and want to devour.
Turning to public relations, marketing, web content and promotional materials, the process remains the same.
Perhaps start by getting down everything you know for the topic about which you’re going to write. Find where there are gaps in your knowledge. Research. Read what others are writing about a particular industry or topic. Understand the company or topic about which you’re writing. Ask questions from employees or managers or industry professionals. Be curious and fill in the spaces where you’re unsure or simply don’t know.
“Write what you know” should not limit your imagination, your creativity or your writing. Instead, allow it to enhance your approach to your writing and provide for an intriguing adventure into fact-finding, understanding and presentation.