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A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Write What You Know
When I was an Acquisitions Editor, the scariest thing I ever heard from prospective authors was that they would use writing a book to learn how a product works. To write well, there’s one simple rule. I know you heard it in creative writing classes, and if you had a good teacher, you heard it in your composition classes. Here it is from me too.

Write what you know.

You don’t have to know everything there is to know about a given subject before you sit down to write, but meandering and poking around is not entertaining or informative reading. You need a strong grasp on the main aspects of your subject to write about it well. (I’m not saying that you can’t write intelligently ABOUT your learning process, just that you can’t write compellingly DURING your learning process.)

The reason critics point to authors’ first novels as autobiographical is that, to a large extent, when they write about their own lives and the people and circumstances in it, novice authors write well. They might have written three or four books before they got published, but when they wrote from their own point of view, they finally hit the mark. Creating characters and places from people you know is the best way to write believably, even if you’re creating a whole new world by writing science fiction.

The same holds true for non-fiction—even for blogs. If you’ve done the research and taken a little time to internalize what you learned, your writing will be more clear and with more focus than if you sit with the manual open by your keyboard.

If you’re a programmer, would you take an assignment with a tight and inflexible deadline using an entirely unfamiliar language or platform? Probably not. Writing works the same way. Both the users of your application and the readers of your words have a right to a basic level of competency in the finished product. Writing for money isn’t like in school, where there was an expectation that you were new to the material. Now you’re out in the real world—a highly competitive real world—and you need to own your knowledge.

If you need to do some research before you can do the writing, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do the research, the programming, the reading, the character development, the outline—whatever it takes for you to know your subject thoroughly—and then take a little time to digest it. When you’ve had a chance to process, you are likely to use the learned material in a way organic to your personal style.

Oh, and don’t expect what you write on a new subject to be perfect from the start—even subjects you know very well need a fair amount of editing to be a pleasant read. Remember, if you can’t bring yourself to read your own work critically a second and third time, your readers probably won’t make it through the first time.