As some of you may know, I write a lot of stuff in a lot of places. I maintain a few blogs, and I also write fiction and non-fiction books and short pieces that I publish on Amazon.
From time to time I get questions or comments that seem to imply that only special people can write.
Who do I think I am, they seem to be saying, to be writing books? And who gave me permission to write about publishing, or marketing, or relations between the sexes, or marriage, or even homebrewing? Shouldn’t that sort of thing be left to experts? Maybe to people with PhDs, or some relevant degree?
I got over that attitude many years ago. Here’s why.
My first serious job was as an associate editor on a book about natural gas regulation. I was completely unqualified. I didn’t have a journalism degree, I couldn’t type, I didn’t know grammar and usage very well, and I wasn’t that great at spelling. After some intense on-the-job training, within a couple years I was writing highly valued analysis of natural gas laws, regulations and court decisions. D.C. lawyers would call me to ask questions about the issues. (I’m not a lawyer.)
Through that process I learned two secrets.
- Know what you know and why you know it.
- Adjust your writing accordingly.
1. Know what you know
When you’re writing for a legal publication, every word had better be right. When you make an assertion, you have to back it up. In fact, you should cite your justification for most of the things you say.
Everything that you write in that environment will be reviewed by an editor who is just itching to find an error and mark it with a big red pen. Editors love to do that. It’s the purpose of their existence. It justifies their paycheck. It’s what makes them feel they have done a good day’s work when they pack up at the end of the day.
Working in a place like that trains you to think in a certain way. You don’t write something is true unless you know it’s true. If you don’t know, you don’t say it.
In a different context you could make it clear that you’re guessing, but there’s no room for that sort of thing in those kinds of publications.
When I started out as an editor, I knew what I didn’t know about being an editor, which was just about everything. I kept the dictionary and the style guide at my elbow, I sat at the feet of a very knowledgeable and very patient energy attorney for a few months to learn about the basics, and I read thousands of pages of FERC regulations, orders, and ALJ decisions. I also read about writing and editing. I sat in on the open meetings at FERC, I went to conferences and I read industry publications.
Yes, it was dreadful. But after a few years there were few people who understood better than I did all the nuances of Order 436, or Section 7(c) transportation rules.
Simply put, I became an expert. It’s actually not that hard.
Years later I edited services on other topics, including human resources issues, used oil regulations, international trade, and a few other things. The key thing to the job was to know what you know, and to read every word with that filter on. “How do I know this is true?”
2. Adjust your writing accordingly
I suspect I know what you’re thinking right now. “Everything you just said about being an expert on natural gas issues is precisely why we’re wondering why you think you can write about those other things. You’re not an expert on that stuff!”
Right. But being an expert only matters for some things.
Having developed that discipline — to know what I know, and know why I know it — allows me to write about things that I’m not an expert on, because when I see that I’m making an assertion of some sort, that old editorial training comes back and says, “You don’t know that.”
Once you adopt that frame of mind, you can write on just about anything. All you have to do is make sure you have things right when you make a factual statement.
But there’s a whole lot to writing that isn’t factual. There are times when it’s perfectly okay to say “Here are my reasons for thinking this, but … hey, I may be wrong.”
For example, there’s a much lower burden of proof on, say, a list of things HR managers should consider when they create an employee handbook, and a description of what the FLSA says about part-time work. The former has a lot more wiggle room than the latter because you’re not telling people what to put in the handbook, but only what to consider.
Part of the discipline of writing is to make sure you understand that and write according to the reader’s expectation of reliability.
Are you writing something factual? Well … get it right, and show your sources.
Are you just blowing off steam, or expressing an opinion? Make that clear.
The thing that you’re writing has a broader context and setting. Be aware of that, and pay attention.
When I write about politics on my blog, it’s clear — at least I hope it’s clear. If it’s not then I’m not doing my job. Anyway, it should be clear that I’m just expressing an opinion. It’s the equivalent of having a beer with friends and jawing about the news. You try not to say things that are wrong, but it’s not like you need to fact check everything.
It’s tempting to think that truth doesn’t matter when you write fiction, because it’s just made-up stuff out of your crazy imagination, but that’s not so. You still need to be mindful of how the reader is going to interpret things. If I say there’s this one-armed guy named Sam who speaks with owls in French, everybody knows there’s no such guy and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. But if I say something about owls or about the French language, that stuff is real and I should get it right.
So when I wrote my little book about men, I made it very clear I was just trying to tell a story and paint a picture. And when I wrote about homebrewing — something I know a lot about — I tried to distinguish the factual stuff from things that are debatable, or matters of taste or style.
The point is, once you learn to think that way, it makes it easier to write in general.
So if the writing bug bites you, go for it. You can write about a lot of things provided you’re careful about what you assert and how you handle what you say.
Whether it sells or not … that’s another question.