I know that “write what you know” is good advice, ladled out by the pot-full to beginning writers. It does get you started when you don’t know what to write at all.
Write about your quirky kids and all they’ve taught you, your trip to Mexico, your auto repair shop, what you eat and why you eat it. It’s a good place to start.
More often than not, though, if you’re trying to make a living as a writer, you must at some point write about what you do not know. The important thing is finding out how to know. You know by deep research that crosses over into “I’ve done way too much research” territory and by interviewing the people who do know already; the experts, the practitioners, the been there and done thats of the issue you are exploring.
I was reminded of that this week (and the wonderful gift of it) as I interviewed Mark J. Epstein, co-author of Joining a Nonprofit Board: What You Need to Know. Epstein is Distinguished Research Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He was gracious and helpful, as are the vast majority of experts I interview in areas I know not much about. I know a little about nonprofit boards, I know less about business.
But most writers who write about a wide variety of topics do know how to ask questions. And how to listen. And how to type every word out in a mad rush of recording. And we know how to read our notes over carefully. And we know how to learn.
So, it’s not so much about writing what you know — which for me would be a horribly limiting fence to put around my writing — but about knowing how to write.
That is the most important thing. Because once you have the tools, you can build just about anything.