Writing in the (and What You) Know

(Or, How to Write With Confidence When You’re Not a Subject Matter Expert)

A Distractions & Subtractions post for Rarasaur

The most irritating piece of writing I’ve ever heard first came to me in my youth:

Write what you know.

I was probably about ten years old.

Perhaps you can see the dilemma: what ten-year-old actually knows anything?

The only thing I knew was that I wanted to write, I wanted to write the sort of story I liked to read, and that the sort of stories I liked reading concerned matters that were in no way similar to my unremarkable, ten-year-old life.

My now being 34 years old hasn’t really changed this fact.

And yet, “What what you know” remains one of the most fundamental (and incidentally, fundamentally misunderstood) pieces of writing advice out there.  It can often paralyze writers with doubt that their work lacks credibility, authenticity, and truth.

Such is the writing subtraction of Rarasaur, a prolific and eclectic blogger and Tweeter of inspirational compliments: “My subtraction: “Expert” anxiety. I worry about writing something if I don’t consider myself an expert on the topic.”  She goes on to convey the persistence of this nagging doubt when writing both fiction and nonfiction.

As someone currently undertaking a work a historical fiction, this concern is all too familiar to me with regards to storytelling.  The realization that some factual error could punch a gaping hole through my novel’s believability is never far from my thoughts.

I worry about credibility considerably less when writing nonfiction – generally because I never try to position myself as the “expert”, and thus feel no obligation to actually be one.

Rather, everything I write that is nonfiction is only my interpretation of certain facts as I understand them.  Technically, the same goes for everything I write that is fiction.

The same notion can apply to you as well, Rarasaur.  By focusing less on what you’re saying and more on how you’re saying it, you can create your stories and share your “tidbits of advice” without fear of ever sounding unknowledgeable or unqualified.

Nonfiction ≠ Fact

In science, nothing is truly a fact; rather, everything we hold to be true is just a theory that hasn’t be disproven yet.

Even the science of gravity, a well-accepted and demonstrable phenomenon first elucidated in the 16th century, is still referred to in scientific terms as Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, and as modified in the early 1900s by Albert Einstein, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

In writing, nothing need be fact either.  This is especially true of nonfiction.  Readers of this blog may perhaps notice how nothing that isn’t either a product of my own experience or an accepted fact is expressed definitively.

Go back on read that last sentence again to see an example of what I mean: I wrote, “Readers of this blog may perhaps notice…”, not “will notice”.  This is because possibly not all readers have noticed.  Maybe none have.

Contrast that with the very first sentence of this post: “The most irritating piece of writing I’ve ever heard first came to me in my youth”.  This is a direct indication of something that happened to me personally, along with my opinion on the incident.

I’m sure not everyone (again, “I’m sure not everyone…”) believes that “write what you know” is irritating advice.  But I do, and thus am justified in saying so.

In truth, both science and the humanities caution about being too forward with one’s assertions.  Rather than boldly declare that something is, there are all sorts of moderating expressions available to the non-expert writer:

  • It’s possible that/Possibly …
  • Perhaps…
  • Maybe/it may be…
  • In some cases…
  • One might think/find/believe…
  • In personal experience…
  • Evidence suggests that…
  • One idea is…
  • Etc.

The view from up here

Another great way to support your non-facts are with someone else’s non-facts; that is to say, with quotations that align with your ideas.  I’m a big fan of quotes myself; I try to include at least one in every blog post.

Sir Isaac Newton, physicist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and original theorist of gravity, is famous for having said,

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

In this, he was referring to his scientific achievements having been made possible only through the achievements of his predecessors, which he drew upon.  In this same way, when writing nonfiction, one can draw upon the words and wisdom of those who have come before us, and make our various suggestions that much stronger.

Fixin’ for fiction

Fiction (no pun intended) is another story.

Whatever claims you make, you’re on your own.  You don’t get to perch on anyone’s shoulders or hide at anyone’s back.  It’s your name that goes on the cover of the novel or the byline of the short story or poem, and if you get details wrong, it’s you who has to step forward and take responsibility.

Research is an obvious solution to this problem.  All stories, regardless of genre, require research.  Anytime you choose to write about something you don’t directly know about, be it making a soufflé or solving a murder case, you need to look it up.  Even if you have direct experience with your topic, you might still want to look it up to learn about some of the exceptions to your experience.  Very few people, no matter how well-practiced, have truly seen it all.

But how much research is enough?

The (re)search for an answer

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to this question: it’s both subjective and unique to the writer, the subject, and the type of story being told.  My best advice is as follows:

  1. Know enough to answer any questions you anticipate your readers might pose
  2. Don’t get hung up on details that don’t closely relate to the plot
  3. Take your research offline
  4. Take it out of the library as well

Point number 4 is especially important if you’re writing about highly technical or highly sensitive topics, or states of being far removed from your own.  In these cases, actually speaking to people who have been there, done that, lived through that, or are living it still is a great way to add verisimilitude, humanity, and empathy to your work.

  1. Accept the fact that you’ll might still get something wrong

Of course, that’s not the goal, but nobody is perfect.  Luckily, in fiction, it’s not the end of the world.  Readers can be quite forgiving, especially if what you claim makes sense within the confines of your plot, and your plot is highly engaging.

I once read a quote in a (now forgotten) writing how-to book:

The job of a story isn’t to tell what’s true; it’s to tell what people believe.

Obviously not meant to be taken 100% at face value, the point this quote is trying to make is that, as author P.A. Wilson explains in a recent blog post,

Truth in a story is not about facts, it’s about emotional punch. If an author sticks only to the facts, the story won’t carry the emotional punch. If the author finds the truth of the story, the core emotions, then the facts needed to tell the story will fall into place….  [Y]ou are telling a story, not giving evidence.

And finally,

  1. Crowd-source your research

Try to chose people who are all very different from each other to be your beta readers: people with diverse knowledge and interests and preferred reading genres.  That way, they’ll nitpick/be curious about different aspects of your story, and just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, your book-baby will benefit from the combined wisdom of all its editor-aunties and uncles as a result.

(Image source)

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11 thoughts on “Writing in the (and What You) Know

  1. I love the quote – The job of a story isn’t to tell what’s true; it’s to tell what people believe. I’m a great believer in “there is no ultimate truth” and I love adding this to my novels at every opportunity!

    “Write what you know” is bandied around as much as “Show Don’t tell” (which is my ultimate pet hate btw). But I understand where they come from and why they’re used. I think it would be really hard for me to write about being a Scottish priest when I’m not religious and not Scottish, but this doesn’t mean I can’t rise to the challenge. When I write about the things I ‘don’t know’ I learn an incredible amount very quickly and this is something I really enjoy 😉

    This is a great post – you’ve got me thinking (always a good thing!)

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    • I love that quote as well. I wish I could remember where I read it so I could give proper credit where it’s due.

      In the many, many years since I was 10, I’ve since come to interpret “write what you know as an admonition to always bring it back to people – to feelings – because everyone understands that. Your Scottish priest would have the same basic human emotions as you or I, which is what stories are really all about (if not the fundamental reason we read/tell stories), a character’s nationality or occupation or whatever other physical descriptor notwithstanding.

      I too learn lots when writing about things I don’t know. Indeed, one of the best ways for me to teach myself something is to write (or otherwise imagine) a story about it. 🙂

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  2. Good topic, Janna. It’s a tricky balance, trying to be authentic without losing sight of the story. As I once said in one of my posts, I tend to write fiction set in the present or the future so I am less subject to nitpickers pointing out minor detail mistakes. That’s not excusing laziness. You still have to be as real as you can be, but I don’t want to agonize over leather-tanning techniques of Yucatan natives in 1840. “They didn’t use glunka-tree root extract until 1841, you idiot!”

    As far as non-fiction goes, we are sometimes more expert than we realize. When a writing partner of mine asked me to start contributing music-related articles to his entertainment webzine a couple of years ago, I was reluctant. After all, I am a self-taught musician whose “expertise” in pop history comes from once managing a music shop. What do I know? Nevertheless, I’ve had people tell me they marvel at my fluidity with the subject, and my moment of self-acceptance came when I interviewed a still-active 1960s pop star last year and she told me I understood music better than any journalist she’d encountered in her almost 50 years in the business. You can bet I won’t forget those words any time soon.

    In other words, Rarasaur probably knows more than she thinks.

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    • Uh, it was actually first used at midnight on New Year’s Eve of 1841, so technically, 1842, dontcha know?

      You make a great point about often knowing more than we think. Even when not an “expert” in the official sense, our at-times-unconventional experience with a subject/interest (compared to the path more typically followed by professionals) often allows for insights into the field that the pros overlook.

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  3. Excellent topic Janna. I like your #5 ‘ Accept that you will still get something wrong’ – though hopefully nothing crucial to the story. Dianne (above) is absolutely correct in that you can learn about alien subjects very quickly, and Eric (above) is correct in that we sometimes actually know more than we think we know about stuff.
    But my present project is so far out of my own life experience I’m taking on an appropriate editor to keep me on the rails.

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  4. Yes, I can definitely relate to that sense of lacking the necessary life experience to write something — even when it comes to songs for a musical, sometimes I find myself fretting over whether I’ve had the particular concerns or conflicts the characters have had, and worrying that what I’m writing won’t be “relatable.” Just writing it down, like I’m doing here, when I have this sentiment definitely puts it into amusing perspective.

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    • Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. I think we all worry about our work being relatable at some point, which is a good thing – it shows that we care enough to do our best. Thankfully, I think that once a person reaches adulthood, s/he has in one form or another experienced a large portion of the full range of human emotions, which s/he can draw up for verisimilitude despite not having dealt with his/her characters’ specific concerns/conflicts personally.

      That is so cool that you write musicals! Have any of them been performed?

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  5. Pingback: Learning how to write | Joe Hinojosa

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