(Or, How to Write With Confidence When You’re Not a Subject Matter Expert)
A Distractions & Subtractions post for Rarasaur
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 …
- Maybe/it may be…
- In some cases…
- One might think/find/believe…
- In personal experience…
- Evidence suggests that…
- One idea is…
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:
- Know enough to answer any questions you anticipate your readers might pose
- Don’t get hung up on details that don’t closely relate to the plot
- Take your research offline
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Icy Sedwick (Fuel Your Writing) – “‘Write What You Know’ Does Not Mean What You Think It Does”
- P.A. Wilson – “Is it Hot? Experiencing the Real”