Many writing teachers say you should “write what you know.” This is good advice – you should utilize your unique background, experiences, and knowledge. It’s easiest to write what you know, and your expertise can be a strong selling point for your book.
But what if you’ve always wanted to learn about sheep herding or jellyfish or how to play the kazoo? Does the fact that you’re not already an expert mean you can’t write about them? Not at all! Writing can be a great way to explore topics you want to study. It just takes some extra time and effort.
Imagine that you’ve agreed to write a how-to book on knitting despite never having picked up a pair of needles. You could read books or watch YouTube to learn the basics. But unless you spend hours practicing, you won’t be able to write authoritatively about it—and trust me, your readers will notice!
As nonfiction writers, we have a responsibility to our audience to be accurate. It’s important to do our homework, and especially so when we’re writing outside our zone of expertise. This means not just finding facts and stringing them together, but also framing them in a larger context of understanding. Which facts are important, and why? And how do they relate to each other? For a picture book, this might not be too daunting. But for a longer book, it can mean months or even years of immersion and study.
It’s the same with science, history, art, or any other nonfiction topic. I’m an ecologist by training, so I’ve written lots of books on life science topics. But I’ve also written on Ancient Egypt, the Titanic, the laws of physics, and even bicycle safety. It took months and a maxed-out library card to get enough of a handle on some of these topics to write about them effectively.
It also required outside help. In each of these cases, an expert reviewed the manuscript before it went to press. When I wrote Amazing Amphibians, my background knowledge helped immensely. But I’m not a herpetologist. So I contacted one and asked him to review the manuscript. He caught a few errors, suggested some additions, and clarified some points, ultimately making the book stronger. Don’t skip this step—it’ll help you sleep better at night.
So, should you write what you know, or what you don’t know? I say either—or both. Share your unique knowledge with the world—or go down that bunny trail. Just be sure to do your homework first!
Amazing Amphibians explores the major amphibian groups—frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—including their anatomy, behavior, and conservation needs. The book will be published in January 2020, and is available wherever books are sold. For more on Lisa’s books as well as her critique and mentorship services, see www.LisaAmstutz.com.