Friday, December 6, 2019

Should You Write What You Know? by Lisa Amstutz


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.

8 comments:

  1. Great advice. It's good to be able to send out a book that's been reviewed by an expert because you know it is sound. Looking forward to your new book!

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  2. Great perspective on writing! Fact-checking with an expert is great advice.

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  3. Thanks for encouragement on the bunny trail!

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  4. I"m so glad to hear there's more to write than 2nd grade curriculum, as long as I do my homework. I love homework!

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  5. Maybe another way to put the response is to write what you’re passionate about. Then you’ll WANT to learn everything you can whether you’re already knowledgeable or not

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  6. Write what we know and what we want to know.... I love learning new things!

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  7. You are so right Lisa! I was a history teacher, but furfher research on a topic I thought I could write about led me to keelboat travel. I wanted to-- longed to--KNOW what I was going to WRITE, so I became a member of a re-enactment group and had my first real life keelboat trip down the Black River in NE Arkansas. On a second trip last year we sank after being pierced by an underwater snag.
    Authentic experiences deeply inform our writing. Adventure inspires it. Thanks for pointing this out.

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