Write About What You DON’T Know

Write What you Don't KnowThere’s a fountain located in downtown Ashland, Oregon, which is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or the OSF. For ten months a year, the OSF brings a cavalcade of tourists through this small town eager to see every interpretation and play of the famous playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon. However, there’s another attraction to this small town: a lithia fountain that bystanders are encouraged to take a sip from.

I know what you’re thinking: What is a lithia fountain?

Well, if you’re ever in Ashland, I encourage you to take a sip. Go ahead, a sign accompanying the fountain says that taking a sip is not only good for your health, but also good luck. The funny part is that there’s usually a bunch of bystanders that are looking/not-looking while you lean over and…

YUCK!!! Why didn’t anyone tell you that the rotten eggs (sulphur) and fizzy-tasting water (sodium bicarbonate) with traces of the mineral lithia was horrible!? Worse, even the bums are laughing at you!

Purposeful Naivety

That’s a cute story, but what does it have to do with writing?

Well, I have to say that one of the popular clichés that is often bandied about is “write about what you know.” Perhaps it’s my contrarian personality type, but I think that popular adage is moot. I’ve got a $10 bet that says that reading this article’s introductory paragraph just educated you on Ashland, Oregonin in ways that:

  • makes great cocktail conversation,
  • warns you about drinking from free spring water fountains, and
  • separates you from about 99% of the world’s population on your knowledge of Ashland, Oregon.

While I won’t get into any deep Kantian epistemological arguments in this article, it’s the last item that’s most important.

As writers, we should be curious about the world. However, not all of us are able to physically interact with every subject that we write about. Heck, even writing about broad subjects like a city and the events that transpire there—what exactly do we know besides a minor fraction of what goes on in the course of a day, an hour, or even minute-by-minute? Come to think of it, writing about what we DO know seems to exclude a lot, doesn’t it?

What we should do, though, is convey emotions through our writing, whatever the subject.

One of the ways to communicate your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) is what I call “purposeful naivety.” It may be a scary proposition for a writer to expose themselves as a person who doesn’t know, but to a reader, you can take them on a vicarious ride to worlds that they have not experienced, cannot experience, or experienced in the past.

I guess we’ll just have to take your word for it.

A Tale of Insurance

One particular assignment I had managed to luck myself into was writing for insurance. Now, I’ll be the first to say that at the beginning, I had only a minimal amount of knowledge about insurance other than the minimum requirements for my car—and even that was a vague knowledge at best. The assignments by my employer were vague, too:

“I need a 700-word assignment on HO-6 policies regarding Fannie Mae’s updated guidelines.”

That was it. Where was I going to pull these deep insights from? Jeez, did I have to attend insurance classes? Get certified? Buy a condo in Manhattan, take out a mortgage, and report back after a few years?

No. What I needed was to not know. It was actually an advantage to be a beginner, as I could look at a topic with an outsider’s perspective. I did my research, cross-referenced the sources, glanced over the “legalese.” In the end, I wrote about what I didn’t know… and now I know.

And if you really want to know, Fannie Mae requires you to have 100% replacement cost insurance for your swanky condo before you can be approved for a mortgage. Well, now YOU know, right?

Insta-Expert

In his book The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris demonstrates that becoming an expert really isn’t any more difficult than doing some due diligence beforehand. He advocates reading the top 3 books on a subject, joining a few trade organizations in a related field, and spreading your “knowledge” on media (ie. podcasts, whitepapers, interviews, etc.). From this, you develop a platform—the more you’re out there, the more you are considered an expert.

For writers, developing a platform is one way of marketing yourself to the masses. But, it’s even more impressive to start from a complete beginner’s point of view and start learning.

The funny part is this: at what point do you transition from beginner to intermediate? Ignoramus to factotum? The real answer is that there really isn’t any metric.

It’s almost like a person who says they play guitar but only knows one song. Would you say that they really know how to play guitar? Would they still know how to play if they only knew one chord? How about one note? Or, let’s get even finer in this concept: what happens if they knew how a guitar was played, but never seen one in the flesh—err, wood?

Now, I agree, you may be outed as a fraud on certain topics, especially if you choose topics that you may be unfamiliar with. That’s why it’s always good to cross-reference your sources and be willing to dive deeper into topics when you have the change. There are always those who will find exceptions to your work, or some naysayer that will disagree with you. Even trolls will disagree with you simply on the grounds of eliciting a response or delighting in our folly (schadenfreude). Ignore them, learn from your mistakes, and always continue learning. That’s our job, isn’t it?

* * *

You’re not supposed to know everything, but as writers—those who transmit knowledge through the written word—it is our responsibility to be curious and to attain knowledge (whatever that is). With the world constantly flip-flopping, perhaps we should have a healthy distrust of self-proclaimed experts (or experts in general). But we owe it our audience to stretch ourselves when it comes to the unknown. Write about what you don’t know. And when the opportunity presents itself, I recommend you drink from that fountain. It’s not half-bad!

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