I want today to give nonfiction writers a pat on the back for taking what they know and putting it down on paper. I spend a lot of time editing books written by authors who have come up with a great idea of their own, fleshed it out and put it down on paper. They may have done a lot of research or learned from a variety of teachers, but in the end they came up with a new take on the information they were given. They had the wherewithal and the gumption to take their own “invention” and run with it in the form of a book. That book may have come out of the workshops they have been teaching or the lectures they have been giving, but in the end they took what they knew and wrote a book (and possibly some articles as well). They deserve credit for that – not just for the writing but for writing what they know.
I’m not saying that fiction writers don’t do research or conduct interview or put what they know down on paper. They do. My novel was inspired by a real-life event as well as a place I knew well. One of my favorite novelists started out as a researcher and bases her stories on extensive research, but in the end fiction writers make up their stories.
In journalism school, I was constantly told to “write what you know.” I think this represents great advice, but I believe a really good nonfiction writer can write about anything. If you are good at doing research and conducting interviews, you can learn any subject well enough to understand it so you can write about it. You can become the expert on whatever you are asked to write about.
During my career as a nonfiction writer, I’ve written about life insurance tax law, ascension, same-day surgery, stepfamily dynamics, laser surgery, business, celebrities, bird migration, corporate communications, employee relations, parenting issues, marriage, allergies, the death of a pet, Jewish spirituality, nature activities, corporate community relations, legal issues… You get the idea. I wasn’t an expert on most of these subjects when I began writing about them, but I was when I finished.
So, I say, write about what you know, or know about what you write. Either way, when you know something, write about it. And then commend your self for doing so, especially if it’s your idea and you’ve written a whole book on your own unique knowingness about something.