How many times have you heard the advice, “write what you know”?
Likely it came from a well-meaning English teacher or peer in your writing circle. If you’re going to write, the argument goes, doesn’t it make sense to stick to things already in your wheelhouse?
In a lot of cases, probably yes. I mean, no one has beaten down my door asking me to write pieces on astrophysics or history. Those endeavors would probably end with an imaginary first-person account of Galileo’s weird nighttime hobbies, or a Lifetime channel-ready screenplay called What Really Went Down with John Smith –– The Untold Pocahontas Tale.
But I digress.
So, obviously you’ve got your niche of stuff you’re already into and know a lot about, which probably means it’s all the more easy to come up with content in that realm. But, if you’re at all a curious person, you’ve probably also got a nifty little bunch of things called interests –– things you’d like to know even more about but just haven’t yet.
Who says you can’t learn about them through writing? It seems counterintuitive, but it is actually the secret ninja weapon of great teachers everywhere. (Google “project-based learning,” and then promptly write a thank-you email to Mrs. Jones, your eighth grade English teacher-superhero who had you write a eulogy for your favorite book character).
After all, we’re in 2017, which means the era of internet #challenges is upon us. Why not make yourself a writing challenge?
Heck, we could even give it a hashtag: #LearnByWritingChallenge. There, now it’s real!
Now, let’s get poppin’ on the hows of this challenge.
Finding a good topic can be the ultimate excuse for procrastination and distraction as a writer. If you haven’t found a muse, how are you supposed to write anything down?
Now that you’re trying to write about something you don’t know about, you might think that the words just aren’t going to appear after that lil’ blinking cursor that’s staring at you. You might be thinking I’m a loon for even suggesting it.
Trust me, we’re getting there.
Rather than take the “wait for inspiration” route (what I like to think of as the Isaac Newton apple strategy), make the topic come to you.
As a writer and blogger, I have my own online spaces where I put my creations. However, sometimes (ok, all the time) I struggle with finding the motivation to create something when I don’t have a set purpose or timeline. (Can you tell I’m often a “I’ll do it later” kind of writer?)
Somehow, the thrill and adrenaline of getting pushed up against the deadline for a writing piece just makes the words flow naturally. I can’t explain it, but psychology probably can.
If you’re anything like me, that means you might need to actually or artificially create a sense of urgency with your writing by creating a goal or target. You might do this by joining a peer writing circle with regular submission dates, or getting an accountability partner or online tool that will hold you to a deadline.
These options can be great motivators, but don’t always incite a sense of urgency. I often need more on the line than peer approval or virtual frowny faces.
I require a real-life agreement that involves pressure, and perhaps a little money. (Should I quit writing and become a full-time poker player?)
A great way to do this, if you don’t want to gamble, is to freelance. When you do this, you form an agreement with a person/institution that can help goad your progress with their expectations. You’re also urged on by the promise of at least some exposure of your work to new audiences and possibly some monetary compensation.
Intrigued? Let’s look at how you might do that.
You may think that this is only an option for professional journalists, authors, or veteran bloggers. Not the case.
Many publications, from the most venerable to the most fledgling, accept articles from writers of all stripes. It doesn’t always matter if you’ve been published anywhere prestigious. If you have a good idea and some solid writing samples to back you up, this should definitely be an option you consider.
Take a closer look at some of the sites, blogs, or other publications you regularly read concerning one of your interests. Were there any articles you liked, but wanted more information about? Something you read and disagreed with? Something that made you Google around afterward?
This might be a good sign that you could use it for your #LearnByWritingChallenge. Think about a different angle or twist you could put on the topic to make it relevant and interesting to that publication’s audience.
Once you’ve got an idea, head over to their “Write for Us” or “Work with Us” section to see about their process for story pitches. After you’ve confirmed that they do indeed accept such pitches, draft one up and send it out. If possible, try doing so with similar ideas at a few different places to increase your chances of getting accepted somewhere.
If you don’t care so much about high readership numbers, try pitching on smaller blogs or sites that may be more willing to give you a chance.
When you get a green light, it’s time to get crackin’.
It’s happening! You’ve got some external motivation for your piece, a target deadline, and lots of energy –– assuming you drink as much coffee as I do.
Maybe right now you’ve been hit with the crushing realization that now you have to write something about a topic you don’t know about. This might make you hyperventilate, but fear not. You’ve got a plan.
The idea here is not to become the certified expert on the topic, but get enough information that you feel confident enough to write about it.
Let’s use a sample example. You like riding bikes, so you decided to submit an article to a bike blog about bike accessories for a city biker. (Take a sip of coffee for every time I said “bike” in that sentence.)
If you’re writing about something that at least relates to a personal interest, you have a wealth of information at the ready.
In this case, start by making a list of the accessories you’ve bought for your own bike. Which have been the most useful? Which ones were a waste? Which of them might be applicable to the audience you’re trying to reach?
You may have already guessed that Google would be your friend in this endeavor.
Googling will help you find other articles that have touched on similar content as well as give you more ideas.
Check out articles with similar focus, but also spend some time watching videos or listening to podcasts that might be relevant to you. Ebooks online or from the library (or real books, if you like) might also be helpful.
Be careful here –– you don’t want to copy or plagiarize what you end up writing from other sources. Feel free to use other content to inspire you, but when you sit down to write later, the thoughts should be yours.
This will probably take the longest of all the steps in the process, but it is the most important!
If social media is good for anything, connecting with people to gain writing material is one of them.
It can be great to get anecdotal stories, quotes, or opinions from people in your social network to help you with your writing. Personal details can add flavor that lots of hard facts cannot.
Post a status or in a group that you’re a part of with a relevant question. Something in this case might be: “Hey friends that live in cities and like to bike! What has been the most important accessory you’ve bought for your bike? It would really help me finish a story I’m working on. Thanks!”
Make any questions short and sweet so that people can comment easily. Anything else and most people probably won’t take the time to respond.
On the flip side, instead of broadcasting a “help” request, try sifting through your amigos to find ones who might be perfect to ask some questions of. Craft them a personalized message with a few questions in it, or see if they might be willing to chat with you for a few minutes over the phone about the topic.
If all else fails, you can go full Woodward and find someone (or a few people) who would be willing to give you a few minutes for some insight. Experts who communicate well can make even the most complicated topics clear for laypeople (see: Neil Degrasse Tyson).
This might not be necessary for our bike accessory example, but in other cases, you might like to have the backing of someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Depending on how new this topic is for you or how hard it is to understand, it may require varying degrees of legwork in the research department.
You should move on to the writing phase once you feel like you have a good grasp on the content.
It’s worth noting that this is anything but a linear process. As you start writing, you might find that you need to bounce back to the research phase here and there to learn more or clarify. This is ok!
By this point, you should have some solid notes from all the research you’ve done. You might be feeling a little overwhelmed by how much information you’ve culled.
Try to keep a few things in mind as you narrow down your included information.
One of my favorite strategies when trying to tease out the most important aspects of my research is thinking about your audience. I like to think my audience is a bunch of kids.
Why? When you teach –– or let’s be honest, even talk to –– kids, it’s imperative that content is simple, clear, and fun. If you start getting way too complex, flowery, or boring, you lose their attention in a split second.
Guess what. A lot of adults are like this, too. So, why not write for them as such?
Even ultra niche blogs or websites must break down their concepts in an easily understandable and entertaining way for their readers. Note that this doesn’t mean you should talk down to them, but instead ensure that whatever you’re saying is going to be remembered.
Here, you have an advantage. As someone who just learned about the topic, you can more easily pinpoint what has been interesting or intriguing as you’ve researched.
Part of the reason that brilliant teachers have their students do projects and presentations where they must explain something to someone else is so that they can find the holes in their understanding of the topic.
As mentioned above, you will probably find these as you go through, and will need to revisit your research to clarify the topic.
If you find yourself confidently being able to explain your topic, it means you’ve really learned it. Rejoice!
That said, as with any topic, there are still a lot of things you just don’t know yet!
Err on the side of caution when it comes to making big claims about concepts you’re still not 100 percent familiar with. Unless you promised a super in-depth piece to your chosen publication or group, no one is expecting you to cover every single aspect in detail.
After all, it is ok to leave questions in an article… isn’t it?
Depending on what you decided to do with what you wrote, your writing might end up in a publication’s editing pipeline, a group feedback session, or perhaps just tucked away on your computer somewhere.
Personally, I recommend sharing your work with others. That’s the best way to really show what you’ve learned.
But in the end, whether the student becomes the teacher is up to you.
Writing what you don’t know can be a challenge, indeed. But it can be done, we promise!
Start with your interests and passions, and let them guide you to your favorite things to read. To increase accountability and the likelihood of taking on the challenge, come up with a pitch for one of the publications you like to read, commit to a deadline, or make a pact with a friend who has hardcore accountability skills.
Once you’ve got the gig, start your learning spree. Consult articles, websites, books, blogs, podcasts, videos, and any other sources that might be useful to you. Don’t be afraid to bust out your inner Lois Lane and email/message/call people you know in real life or virtually. When all else fails, call in the experts.
Finally, distill down your information in such a way that even an easily distractible reader would want to pay attention. Make sure your writing is simple, clear, and interesting. Don’t worry if you don’t know everything –– trust your abilities, and feel free to leave out or merely reference any complex topics you weren’t able to tease out.
When you start learning by teaching yourself, it becomes a lot harder to find excuses not to write.
Happy learning, grasshopper.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.