Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Write What You Don't Know

Young Boy
 Posted by Linda

We’ve all been told to “write what you know”. However, Bret Anthony Johnston, director of creative writing at Harvard University, in his first class of the semester, passes out a list of things students should avoid. Last on the list is “Write what you don’t know.” In fact I found many blog posts and articles on the web that suggest the same thing.

Writing what you know as a beginner gives you a start. After gathering some clips, it is suggested you switch to writing what you don’t know, whether for fiction or non-fiction. I’ve been as guilty as anyone to say, “But that’s how it happened.” If we write “how it happened,” we find our story or article becomes very boring. As Johnston states, you write “to explain, not to discover.”

Another source says you don’t have to be an expert to write about something. How do you develop the expertise to write about something you don’t know? Research.

Research is so much easier today with the Internet. You can find quotes from experts, names of experts, and all kinds of information. Just be careful to use several sources that substantiate what you say. Editors do not consider Wikipedia a reliable source. If you notice, anyone can go in and edit the information. I believe a staff person then checks it, but play it safe and search other sources. Be sure to document your sources in case an editor questions something you’ve said. 

I Googled the title of this post for information and found blog posts by writers, professors, and teachers as well as magazine articles. Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature lists magazines to search for information on your subject. Also check your library’s databases for magazine articles. Many subjects have associations to whom you can go for information. To find an association Google U.S. Societies and Associations Directory. Find hundreds, if not thousands, of questions and answers from experts at

            What sources do you use when writing what you don’t know?


Jan Cline said...

As a historical fiction writer, I research a lot. I have always loved digging for facts and studying history. Now I have a legit reason to do it. Research is much easier now with the internet but there is nothing like getting out there and using your senses to gather impacting information. Great post, thank you.

Linda Osmundson said...

Thank you, Jan. Keep up the good work.

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