Write What You Know or Know What You Write?
Being genuinely curious and knowing what you don’t know are the seeds of good non-fiction writing.
Common advice for novelists is to “write what you know,” the idea being that your plot and characters won’t come off as authentic unless you’ve been there, done that. That’s fine advice, but in reality many great mystery and thriller writers have never been cops or detectives and have never shot or strangled anyone to death. I know a top-notch, widely read crime novelist who pens a series with a woman protagonist, and I’m pretty sure he’s never been one.
Honestly, most of us don’t really know very much about anything.
What’s important is having the motivation to overcome that gargantuan hole in the resume. It’s true in fiction, and it’s true in non-fiction, and it’s critically true in journalism or any writing about important topics like health or finance or politics—where missteps, misinformation and misleading claims can impact real things like the credibility and careers of sources and the safety and well-being of readers.
So… how much do you not know?
My bet: a lot.
Smart people who don’t know much
I’ve interviewed top cosmologists who are quick to say they are, obviously, not experts in astronomy, and vice-versa. This also happens within cosmology or within astronomy. A lunar dynamicist may not know squat about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, other than what she read in the popular media. A botanist likely knows zip about ants. Ontogeny may recapitulate phylogeny, but how many scientists even know what that means?
Numerous times, highly respected and accomplished experts in whatever narrow field have said to me, “That’s not my area of expertise, you’ll have to ask…” somebody in a highly specialized field that I didn’t even know existed.
I hear this from epidemiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians. I wish I heard it more from some experts who seem willing to comment well beyond their areas of expertise — they sometimes say BS and it’s hard for me, a know-nothing, to sift through the useful and the not.
Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist, engineer and mathematician, and he knew his way around a canvas. Brilliant as he must’ve been, there was less to know back then. More and more, the expanding database of human knowledge is compartmentalized, even among the most accomplished professionals. I’m not talking about information. I’m talking about knowledge, in which a learned expert pieces together bits of information, objective and subjective, to reach reasonable conclusions based on logical thought processes developed through extensive experience.
How can a mere writer expect to know much about the myriad topics that present as good story ideas every day?
There’s specialization, of course .
There was a stretch of years, in the early days of writing for Space.com back around the turn of the millennium, when I’d published more articles about asteroids than anyone in the solar system, I’m pretty sure. When there was news about space rocks, I usually had a rock-solid mass of background in my head, a loose agglomeration of reference info on and around my desk, and a good chunk of the top experts on speed dial. I still learned something with every story, but the education was incremental.
Then I branched out into general science writing, with the launch in 2004 of Live Science, a sister to Space.com. Forced to tackle topics I knew little to nothing about, each article was a serious education.
And nowadays I write mostly about health science. Boy do I learn a lot!
And that’s the point. Each story should be an education for the writer. That is, for me, the joy of writing, be it journalism or blogging or fiction or whatever.
But like the cosmologists and the psychologists, my knowledge remains extremely limited. Even given the tremendous amount of work I put into researching two books.
Two case studies
When I wrote the science thriller 5 Days to Landfall many years ago, I did extensive research. Here’s a mere slice (which includes some spoilers):
I obtained giant flood-zone maps on architectural blueprint paper in big long tubes from the Army Corps of Engineers;
interviewed leading hurricane experts at the National Hurricane Center and elsewhere;
read A Wind to Shake the World, Everett S. Allen’s book about the 1938 hurricane that struck Long Island;
read Learning to Fly Helicopters, a simple how-to book by R. Randall Padfield;
interviewed a Coast Guard pilot who flew rescue missions off the coast of Alaska;
hoofed it around lower Manhattan for hours and hours to imagine what water would look like busting through this hotel, cascading down that subway stairwell;
read “The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City” by Jennifer Toth;
ate lunch in a lower Manhattan cafe, which I planned to submerge (and later, during Hurricane Sandy, it did flood);
studied historical tracking maps to understand exactly how hurricanes are likely to move and why;
interviewed an expert who was helping develop the next-gen forecast model;
drove the Jersey Shore so I could describe actual bridges and boardwalks and inlets and homes I planned to destroy;
trekked to Coney Island to see the vulnerable, seaside nursing homes for myself;
read up on how nursing homes are organized inside;
read a bunch of news articles about the destruction of actual hurricanes and what it’s like to go through one;
dug deep into the physics of high winds on skyscrapers;
studied up on New York City’s politically charged and deeply flawed emergency operations;
became steeped in meteorology-speak and the style of ALL CAPS bulletins produced every few hours as a storm approaches;
educated myself on how insurance and re-insurance companies can be affected by disasters;
examined how network TV cables wound around the floor during a press event.
All that just so I could make stuff up!
The year I spent on that book was 80 percent research, and I went into it having already attended a National Hurricane Conference as a reporter and having written much about the science of hurricanes.
In 2022, I wrote the non-fiction book Make Sleep Your Superpower. The process was totally different. The seeds of the book, and much of the text and ideas that ended up in it, accumulated during four years of writing daily about health science, with an emphasis on sleep and the things that contribute to good sleep (like diet and exercise) and the things that destroy sleep (like stress and alcohol). In a way, the book almost then wrote itself, as I’ve explained before, but I also put countless hours into the new research, writing and editing needed to take it from a partial collection of partial chapters to a full-blown 300-pager worthy of a reader’s time.
Simply put, in fiction and nonfiction, writers look stuff up and check stuff out. A lot of stuff.
If you want to sound authoritative, you have to be authoritative. You have to know your topic. Just as a novelist has a character’s back story in her head and may have a good idea of what came before and after the plot of a given story, the journalist or blogger or self-published expert must know more on a topic than what ends up a piece of nonfiction.
Putting it into practice
Now I’m going to explain exactly how you can employ all this in your story ideation, framing, research and writing, so that you can write articles that are authoritative, engaging, enlightening, and worth a reader’s time. First, here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin to research and outline your next piece:
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