How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About
I’ve had to write copy and blog posts on everything from the Rana Plaza collapse, to healthy eating, to bathing machines. I didn’t know anything about any of these things before I got started. But there was a job to be done.
Having to write about something you know nothing about—whether it’s for yourself or a client—can be daunting. Where do you begin? Do you start with research, or with writing? Is there such a thing as too much research?
Well, the first thing you need to do is…
1. Stay Calm
There’s no point panicking. You’ve agreed to write the piece (or don’t have a choice), so deep down you know that you can do it.
Get your coffee, and do whatever it is you need to do to get you into your Writing Zone.
If you’re really on edge, take a few minutes to clear your head. My favourite ways to relax are cross stitch, watching Castle, or a soak in the tub.
2. Look Up New Words
Been given a piece of jargon you don’t understand? Use Google’s handy ‘Define:’ function. This is one of my favourite features of Google. Simply type ‘Define:’ and follow it with the word you’re after the definition of. It will then come up with several different definitions, and at the top, highlight the one it thinks is the best.
This doesn’t work every time. For those times, there’s always a good, old-fashioned corporeal dictionary, but more recent words or jargon may not be included in it.
Two of my favourite (free) online dictionaries are Dictionary.com, or Oxford Dictionary. You’ll find most words on there, and Dictionary.com also has a thesaurus section. I find that if I still don’t understand a word, looking up synonyms helps. And don’t forget there’s always Urban Dictionary, too.
If, after all that, you’re still confused, ask someone. It’s better to ask now and feel stupid than wait until further through the process—this can lead to wasting the time and money of both you and your client/editor/boss.
Now that you know what you’ve got to do, it’s time to start your research.
Try different variants of the same thing, for instance, if writing about eBooks, you could search for, ‘eBooks’, ‘Kindle’, ‘Nook’, ‘How to Write an eBook’, ‘How to Publish an eBook’, etc. Slight changes in the words and phrases you use can give you completely different results, so make sure to research as many keywords as you can. That way, you’ll be fully armed before you start writing.
4. Start Writing
Use the research you’ve got, sit down, and write.
It’s your first draft: it doesn’t need to be perfect. Just write something.
Try to write it all in one sitting (provided it’s only a short piece). Once you start writing—and only writing, no distractions—you’ll find it easier to keep going. Multitasking is bad for productivity, so don’t start on your first draft until you can give it your full attention.
Refer back to your research to double check the facts when you’re unsure of something.
5. Take a Break
Once you’ve got your first draft down, go and have something to eat, take a walk, chat to a friend—do something non-writing related to clear your head.
This will help you to go back to the piece recharged and with a fresh pair of eyes.
The longer you leave it, the fresher your perspective will be, but even if it’s only for half an hour whilst you take the dog for a walk, it still helps.
It’s amazing how much easier/different things can feel you’ve distanced yourself from it.
6. Do Some More Research
You never know what else you’ll find second time around.
There could be a search term you’ve missed, a useful magazine article, a book or a key fact you need to include.
Google some more variations of your topic. The more research you do, the more informed your piece will be.
It’s time for the second draft!
Use the research you’ve got, and, if you really hate what you’ve written, start again. Now that you’ve gotten the rubbish out of your system you can get started on the good stuff.
If you like what you’ve got, go through it and view it as you would a piece by a stranger. Where can you add in more detail? Which sentences need more clarification? Is there anything you could do to make it easier to read?
Repeat taking a break, doing some more research, and editing/redrafting as required.
Proofreading is so important when writing. It’s one of the most boring parts of writing, but it’s vital if you want to submit a quality piece.
A change of scenery—or even just switching from screen to print—can create a whole different atmosphere. Reading a print-out of something is entirely different than reading it on your screen, as is reading in a coffee shop to your sofa. If you have time, give it a go.
If you’re short on time or not great at picking up on your own errors, give it to a friend/colleague/freelancer to look over.
9. Check Your Facts Again
You can never check your facts enough.
If you’re writing a piece for someone else, send it to them and get feedback.
If it’s a piece for your blog/business, send it to a writing partner or someone you work with.
If it’s fiction, send it to one of your (honest) writer friends. Tell them when you need the feedback for, and work on something else whilst you wait for a response.
11. Make Changes
Someone will always find something that needs changing in your work, even if it’s just a typo. You may want to send it to someone else for feedback—particularly if it’s a topic that you’re unsure on or your client is fussy—once the changes have been made.
Then, once you’ve made the necessary changes to your piece…
12. Click Send!
You’re done writing about whatever it was you didn’t know about when you started!
It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?
Not only do you have the satisfaction of finishing a piece, but you’re now knowledgeable in a whole new area!
Writing about something you know nothing about is terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be: it can be exciting, too. Educational even.
Research is important in all areas of writing. If you haven’t done your research, there will always be someone willing to point out your error. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who informed James Cameron he’d gotten the constellations wrong the night of the Titanic sinking.
When it comes to writing fiction, you have much more creative license than when writing nonfiction.
You should still ensure your fiction is believable though, and one way to do this is through research. Allowing your piece to be grounded in reality makes it more relatable to the reader, and the more relatable it is, the more they’ll connect with it and keep coming back for more.
Over to You
What’s your approach to writing about something you know nothing about? I’d love to hear how you tackle it in the comments!