Excerpted from 10 Golden Rules of Freelance Writing and How I Broke Them – available in paperback and ebook formats.
Write what I know? Yeah, sure! I’m going to write about running a high-speed slitter in a plastics factory? I’m going to write about operating a gigantic vacuum metallizer? I’m going to write about blowing up three cars in two years while running around the state as a rock-n-roll advertising salesman? I’m going to write about baking bagels in a small bakery?
I’ll tell you this much– I sure didn’t know much about Credit and Collections before writing over 40 articles about that. I sure didn’t know much about Corporate and Industrial Security before writing around 50 stories about that. I sure didn’t know much about Warehousing, Logistics, Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), Robotics, Just-In-Time (JIT) Distribution and JIT Manufacturing and things of that nature before publishing probably another hundred stories about those topics, as well.
I mean– really! What kind of stupid writing rule is that? “Write What You Know.” Give me a break! You write what editors want, and you write about what you want to learn about!
I often read something fascinating in the paper, or see it on the news, or read about it in a trade publication– then pursue an article about it so I can interview the experts, learn about the topic more deeply, and then write a fascinating article. That’s half the pleasure to be gained by being a freelance writer: the non-stop, ongoing education you get on a gazillion different topics. I don’t think I’ve ever written an article wherein I didn’t learn something new. That’s the fun of it! Writers know a little bit about a lot of different topics, wherein the average professional knows a lot about a single topic, or two or three.
Don’t write about what you know– write about what you want to learn more about. That’s what real writers do. They don’t write about picking daisies in their back yard, or weeding their gardens. Really. They write about fascinating topics they want to learn about– and usually with the assignment already in the bag.
Writers write about all kinds of things. Yes– some writers do write only about what they know, but their opportunities for getting published are rather limited, as are their incomes, I would bet.
But, as a general rule, don’t ever believe you must “write about what you know” in order to make a living as a writer.
Contrarily, 90% or more of my 500+ articles were written about subjects I knew little or nothing about before digging in and researching, interviewing, then writing the articles. [I should also note that (Phew! Please!!) few, if any, of my 200 or so published erotic stories had anything whatsoever to do with my personal experiences!]
Yes– doctors write papers on medical topics. Lawyers write essays about law. But professional writers– those who aspire to make their livings at it– write about whatever it is that the market (or the editor) is hungry for. What does the editor want? That’s what I’m going to write about. Right? Make sense?
“Write what you know.” I genuinely cringe when I hear that crazy rule. It’s so untrue. I had an editor call me up one day. “Bob– I just read about this fantastic robot they built and are testing at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals, down in Research Triangle Park (NC). It sounds fascinating, and I’d like you to look into it and interview the guy who designed it and the guy who’s running the project. I have their names and phone numbers for you, but I haven’t contacted them and they have no idea you’ll be calling. Let’s make it a Close-Up,” he said to me, meaning it would be a $550 story.
Take a guess: Did I say, “Sorry, Buddy. I don’t know anything about robots or robotics. I guess you’ll have to give the assignment to somebody else?”
Good guess. That would be just plain stupid. Again– I knew absolutely nothing about robots or robotics. Zilch! But my editor knew I was a smart guy and a good interviewer and a darned-good writer. So he called me up and gave me the assignment, obviously not caring very much about whether or not I knew anything about robotics.
You write about what editors would like you to write about. You write about what you know will help you crack a specific market. You write about what you think might enhance your resume. You write about subjects that interest you, because you look forward to doing the research, interviewing experts or big shots in that particular field, and learning more about the topic.
As far as being intimidated about writing articles on subjects you know nothing about– forget about it! Never be intimidated. You can learn from simple research at your local library (and now so easily online), and you especially can learn from your interviewees. Yes, you’ve got to do enough research on the topic to be able to come up with a list of intelligent questions to ask the interviewees, but that’s about it. Most of your knowledge on a subject will come from interviewing experts– or at least that’s been the case with me. You get a general, overall knowledge from your research, but a more in-depth, detailed knowledge and understanding (not to mention a better context) from your interviews with the experts.
I was amazed, when I first began working with high-level people at relatively large companies around the country, at how eager many of them were to help me learn more about their particular industry. People solidly entrenched in a specific industry or business or discipline are often very gung-ho about it, and eager to explain it or teach it to “newbies.”
The flip side to that is that, once you’ve published one or two or three articles about a specific topic– run with it! Become “the expert” that all the editors will want to turn to when an opportunity for a story on that topic pops up.
Over a period of years and hundreds of articles, I somehow found myself an “expert” in many, many different topics, simply because I’d researched them, interviewed the real experts, and written quite a few articles about those topics.
You learn by osmosis. Surround yourself in corporate and industrial and computer security stories and research and experts and interviews long enough– and POOF! You’re suddenly the expert. It happens without you ever realizing it’s happening.
“Write what you know” is a useless, deceiving rule. The more it’s promulgated, the more damage it does to the self-confidence of aspiring writers. So let’s kill this rule once and for all!
Bob Freiday has been a business journalist and writer for more than 15 years and has published over 750 articles in more than 50 publications. He was a Contributing Editor at Inbound Logistics Magazine (Thomas Publishing Co., New York, N.Y.) and a Field Editor for Prentice-Hall’s Bureau of Business Practice and Simon & Schuster’s Business & Professional Publishing division. He also is past Executive Editor of the Velvet Specials and The Best of Velvet (Eton-Vanity Publishing Co., New York, N.Y.). Originally from New Jersey, he now resides and works out of Ft. Myers, FL.
Bob’s new book, 10 Golden Rules of Freelance Writing and How I Broke Themis available in paperback and ebook formats at the link above.