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What Should You Write About?

Write what you know, even if it's something somebody else wrote....

Write what you know, even if it's something somebody else wrote....

I’m part of a small monthly writing group that Courtney started six months ago. We usually meet at her house, and just talk about our lives and the issues we run into as writers. Most of us are in our early thirties, but one of the guys in the group is a college kid. If I were in his situation, I’d be terrified of playing writer with all the grown-ups, but he doesn’t have that problem. He’s clever, cool, and confident, and with good reason. He’s an incredibly talented individual.

The problem he keeps running into — and I don’t think I’m violating any confidences here — is that his attention wanders. He writes short stories and poetry. He paints. He’s got so many things he wants to work on, it’s incredibly difficult to force himself to ignore everything else long enough to get a book written. That’s the curse of most artists, the constant allure of new projects that shine with all the promise (and none of the tedium) of the work we’re currently mired in.

So when he brought that up at our last meeting, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had a solution for him, too: start another new project.

No, really. I told him the same thing I told you a couple weeks ago. Start a blog. It makes writing a habit. Not only that, it makes writing for a specific project a habit, while still allowing the newness of each individual blog post to temper that tedium a little bit. It seemed to me like a great solution to his problem, but he looked at me blankly for a bit and said, “What would I write about?”

“Your life, maybe? Some people enjoy keeping a journal, just to keep friends and family up to date–”

He shook his head. He was quiet for a minute, while I tried to come up with a good alternative, then he looked up and said, “Can I write about songs?” He laid out a little bit of a plan, the kind of things he would write about, and the whole group agreed that sounded awesome. He went home and started his blog the next day.

Write What You Know

He’s following one of the oldest rules in writing: write what you know. I doubt he was thinking of those words when he picked his topic, though. When I first heard that rule, I tried to follow it by peopling my fantasy novels with the kids in my Middle School. It didn’t work. Most creative writers wrestle with bridging the distance between their normal lives and the fantastic stories they want to tell, and this rule is a constant source of consternation for them.

It took me ten years of writing before I discovered it, but here’s a tip for any new creative writers out there:

“Write what you know” isn’t for you.

Or…well, it is, but it’s an afterthought. It’s way down the flow chart you should be following to make a story. For creative writers, “Write what you know” is about making believable flavor and depth, but most of the time it’s not the core of a story.

I’m not talking to the creative writers today, though. I’m writing to the bloggers, the business writers, and for you guys, “Write what you know” is your bread and butter. “Write what you know” is the answer to questions you haven’t even considered yet.

Technical writing is all about translating understanding — it’s about converting expert information into a more easily accessible format. Whenever you’re writing, your job is to take some things you understand, that your readers don’t, and help your readers understand them.

Maybe that’s just a matter of bringing something to light. That’s what my friend is doing with his song lyrics site — he’s sharing the revelations he finds in music with people who could benefit from that insight. He pays attention, so you don’t have to!

On the other hand, maybe you’re a genuine expert on a topic, and you want to teach. That’s what I’m trying to do with Unstressed Syllables, and that’s the focus I bring to my blog posts every week. When it’s time to choose a topic, I try to find something I know, something that could be useful to my readers, and then I work on saying that in a way that doesn’t require my extensive education and experience to understand.

Free Translation Services

Then again, maybe you’re just an enthusiast. There’s no reason for that to stop you. As a Technical Writer, I work every day with Electrical Engineers whose understanding of complex systems could put me to shame. It’s not my job to understand everything they know — it’s my job to pay attention to what they have to say, and find a way to say it that is more accessible to my audience (in this case, technicians who have to do the maintenance). I tell people my job is to listen to engineers explaining how something works, and then translate it into English.

You can do the same thing with your blog post or your report — find an expert you can understand, borrow their knowledge, and reformat it for your audience. Provide context, provide illustrations and summary overviews, provide commentary! Half of the content on the internet is just people pointing their readers to articles already posted elsewhere.

Whatever you’re doing, though, add your own value to it. Add your own expertise. Tell your readers why to care, how to respond, or just what you think. You can see that in every post on The Solace of Melody. It’s got to be a little intimidating, posting a couple stanzas of the cleverest lyrics he can think of, and then trying to find something of his own to say that even comes close to measuring up.

But, y’know, without that there would be no value to the blog at all. Without that, he’d have nothing more than another site listing song lyrics. Instead, every post starts with a topic he cares about, something powerful enough to move him, and follows through with his own thoughts. He’s writing what he knows, and he’s getting better and better at it with every post.

That’s your job, too. Find something you care about. Find something you can translate to your readers. Whether that’s a running log of your personal experiences (microblogging or journaling), or a niche news site focusing on the things you’re interested in, your whole focus should be on making something you understand accessible to the people reading your site. If you’ve done that, you’ve succeeded.

3 Responses to “What Should You Write About?”

  1. Maria says:

    Excellent definition of technical writing. I’ve been writing about using computers for years now. Not exactly fun work, but it sure does pay the bills. It works for me because I seem to have a knack for making technical information and instructions easy for the average end user to understand. That IS what it’s all about.

    And the best advice you can ever give a wannabe writer is to start and stick with a blog. Tons of practice there, sometimes feedback. A great place to jot down the seeds of future work. I’ve got enough posts about flying helicopters, for example, to compile them into a book — that’ll be this summer’s “creative” project.

    Great post. Thanks!

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks so much for commenting, Maria! It’s great to hear positive feedback, especially from someone else in the field.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of a book about flying helicopters, and even more so by the thought of blog posts on the topic. It seems too big to blog, but that’s exactly my point, I guess. It’s not, for you, and that lets you share it with the rest of us. Awesome.

    Also, as an aside, I thought your most recent advice to photographers was both apt and pretty hilarious. I’ve been following a friend as she’s developed a gorgeous photoblog, and it’s amazing to see it when it’s done right.

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    I have been finding that when I finally just sit down and write about something…anything…I eventually end up with the opposite problem. What should I cut out?

    Writing is an amazing creature with a ferocious knack for self-preservation. Ideas reproduce exponentially until our brains need a break or some coffee.

    I think, many times, the biggest block is that ever-present fixation on writing it perfect the first time. It can stop the flow and reproduction of writiing ideas in its tracks leaving us with a half finished draft and nowhere to go. I need to learn to not look back (at least not too much) until I am spent, rested, and back at it.