“Be strong. No one is going to ask you to write. Many people will tell you not to. Don’t listen to them. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. You don’t need permission. If you need permission let this be it. I give it to you. Now go.”
– Cheryl Strayed
I’ve read a few things recently that I would have found pretty off-putting when I was first starting out as a writer.
In particular, I frequently see new writers and bloggers being told they shouldn’t write about subjects they have no experience in. I can see where people are coming from when they say this, but I think we need to be careful about the messages we send to aspiring wordsmiths, or we risk having people give up before they’ve even started.
When I first started out as a journalist, I knew next to nothing about business. I remember the interview for what would become my first full-time writing gig (junior writer on a business magazine). My editor-to-be stressed it wasn’t a requirement to have business knowledge for the role, as I’d learn on the job, but he wanted to get a sense of what I knew anyway.
He asked me a few questions, including: “What’s angel investment?” and “What does AIM stand for?”. I had no idea. I remember going back to my temp job and saying: “There’s no way I’ve got the job, I didn’t know any of the business questions.”
Much to my surprise, a week later I was saying my goodbyes and getting ready to start my writing career. Three months later, I was assigned my first profile for the magazine – an interview with an entrepreneur whose business had floated on AIM (which stands for the Alternative Investment Market, also known as London’s ‘junior’ stock market, if you were wondering!). I felt way out of my depth and had all the feelings you might expect: Who am I to write this piece? It will be obvious I don’t know what I’m talking about, etc.
So I did what any decent journalist would do before a big interview: a ton of research. Then I sat down with my interviewee, asked a lot of questions and listened carefully as he told me the story of how he’d built his business so far.
If I’d let ‘rules’ about what you’re supposed to write as a beginner stop me, I never would have written that article
The result? My editor was happy with the piece (if I can find the relevant issue of the magazine, I’ll share a photo!) and I even went on to win ‘employee of the month’ for “writing about an AIM-listed business despite not knowing what AIM was three months ago!”.
If I’d let ‘rules’ about what you’re supposed to write as a beginner stop me, I never would have written that article. I probably wouldn’t have applied for the job in the first place, and I may not have gone on to fulfil my dreams of becoming an editor and launching my own freelance business.
Everyone starts somewhere and if there’s a subject you feel drawn to or curious about, please don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t pursue it.
What does matter though, and what I think people really mean when they say these things, is how you write about things you have little or no experience in.
What does matter is how you write about things you have little or no experience in.
In my first few years as a journalist, I wrote lots of features on subjects I knew little about to begin with: becoming an angel investor, franchising, rebranding, joint ventures, white labelling…the list goes on. Each time, I referred back to my training and approached the piece methodically, doing a lot of research, getting to know the questions readers wanted answers to and interviewing a range of experts. And with each one, I learned a little more.
Nearly 10 years later, I can and sometimes do write about certain topics off the top of my head, especially when it comes to freelancing or content creation. But it took time to get to that stage. Often, if I’m writing anything other than a more personal post (like this one) or behind-the-scenes update, I’ll still do research to add context, examples or more than just my take on a subject. And if I introduce a new concept, resource or example from elsewhere, the creator will be linked to and properly credited (ie, with their full name and business/blog name).
And if I’m writing about a subject I don’t know much about? I go back to basics with research and interviews as always. I’ll never stop doing this, because I never want to stop learning and growing.
I’m not saying you have to wait 10 years to write from your own experience. Anyone can write this way on the right subject. What I’m saying is, when you’re brand new to a topic, of course you can’t write credibly in this way. No-one expects you to. But that doesn’t mean certain topics are off-limits to you or that you can’t write about them in an authentic and compelling way.
The beginner’s mind is a beautiful thing. It asks more questions, does more homework and makes fewer assumptions
You won’t get there by paraphrasing others’ blogs and passing their ideas off as your own, without crediting or adding new insight. But you can get there by going to those people and asking them for interviews, or sharing transparently where you are and taking people on the journey with you.
Be a storyteller. Get exclusive quotes and insights first hand and fully credit your sources. It’s a great way to learn about a subject while creating awesome, ethical, one-of-a-kind content as you go.
The beginner’s mind is a beautiful thing. It asks more questions, does more homework and makes fewer assumptions. You’re not clouded by the way things have always been and the world needs fresh perspectives. Don’t rush this stage or try to hide it. And don’t shy away from subjects that light you up because you don’t feel that you’ve ‘earned’ the right to cover them yet. Embrace where you are and make the most of it. Some of my earliest pieces are some of my favourite to date.
So please, go forth and write about whatever you want; but if it’s something you haven’t personally experienced, do it in the right way. It’ll take longer, but it’ll be worth it.