Research And Writing What You Know

The October issue of Writer’s Digest arrived this past Monday and I am in the process of devouring it, as I usually do.

In the “Reader Mail” section, a letter from Greg M. of Fredericksburg, Virginia regarding an earlier issue’s article by best-selling author Jodi Picoult got my attention. Greg, taking exception to a former professor of Ms. Picoult’s using the old “Write what you know” chestnut during a lecture she recounted in her article, pointed out several examples of successful authors (Clancy, Rice and Frazier) who most assuredly did not live their subject matter. Opining that successful writers are those who research their subject matter, Greg pointed out that rearranging the old saying to read “Know what you write” was a much better piece of advice.

I have always regarded the “Write what you know” adage with a tad of skepticism, feeling that it is excellent guidance for beginning writers, but limiting to those who have moved beyond those first “baby steps” of writing we all take.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to put pen to paper about subject matter you know, and it allows a higher level of confidence in what you have written. I currently write articles for two different areas of my own expertise; comic books, which I know very well, and hiking, backpacking and camping, which I know fairly well. In both subjects, I have years and years of experience to call upon when crafting an article and I make use of that experience and knowledge.

However, in spite of writing “what I know”, I still do research for almost every article I write; some cursory and some extensive. At times it amounts to no more than a simple date check, while other times it may involve deeper fact-checking. Unless I’m writing something in the fantasy or make-believe realm, where rules can be somewhat bent, I always treat my writing as a journalistic endeavor where the mantra is “double-check your facts and sources”. I believe even my travel blogs from Scotland and France will reflect that I make the effort to be sure when I’m citing some historical, geographical or even anecdotal information that it is factual or based on accepted wisdom or lore.

In other words, I believe a good writer is someone who will “Know what you write” even when you “Write what you know.”

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