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Two Adages and Your Writing

If you have been writing (or studying writing) for very long, you’ve no doubt run across the following two adages of the trade, perhaps more times than you’d like to remember:

  1. “Write what you know.”

  2. “Your writing becomes like what you read.”

Since I began writing for publication back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, I’ve come to acknowledge the validity of those two mantras, but my writing has tended to reflect a slight modification of them. While it’s true that you should write what you know in the sense that you should be knowledgeable of the topics about which you write, you can also get a lot of mileage from writing about what you don’t yet know but want to learn. Assuming that you do the learning about the topic before you try writing about it.

I began writing what I knew. I didn’t know what else to write about. For examples, I wrote about camping, which my family did when I was a child and which I did with my children when they were growing up (“The She-Bear and the Sugar Bowl,” originally published in Smoky Mountain Trails and since reprinted numerous times). I wrote about my experiences growing up near and later working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (“Living in the Shadow of the Atomic City,” Blue Ridge Country). And I wrote about some of my jobs, teaching, editing, and writing (“The Needle’s Eye: The Use of Games in Teaching,” Journal for Christian Educators; “Wielding Your Blue Pencil,” The Writer; and “Keys to Better Technical Writing,” New Writer’s Magazine).

But I also began to write about what I didn’t know but was willing to research and learn about. I wrote about what I had learned. That was true of my article writing, but it was especially true of my book writing. My first book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland, 2016), resulted from a growing curiosity I had developed about that topic but was unable to find recent books written on it (the most recent one having been written some 70 years earlier). It is also true of my soon-to-be-released book, COMBAT! Spiritual Lessons from Military History (TouchPoint Press, 2020).

So, write what you know. But go beyond that and write what you don’t know but want to learn. After you’ve learned about those topics, of course.

To do that, you’ll have to read an awful lot. And that fact leads into the second adage: “Your writing becomes like what you read.”

I began reading, I mean really reading, when I was in fifth grade, and the volume of reading has steadily increased ever since. Much of it was for pure pleasure, and I found that I derived great pleasure from reading nonfiction, especially history. But an increasing amount of my reading has been for the sake of learning so that I could write about what I learned.

When I was in junior high and high school, I began reading a lot of journals and books on government and economics. Tough, complex, hard-to-understand works, such as The Intercollegiate Review, The Freeman, Human Action. Writings by experts in the fields, such as Friedrich Hayek, Hans Sennholz, Ludwig von Mises. Writers who used big words and complex sentence structure. And the more I read, the more I began to assimilate their prose style into my own writing. I wasn’t consciously imitating; I was becoming.

Long after I graduated from college and was well established in my career, I went back to take some more post-graduate classes just for the pure pleasure of learning some more about eras of history that I felt deficient in, and those classes involved a lot of writing. One professor, commenting on the writing in the papers we students had turned in, mentioned “Mr. Peterson’s Pauline sentences.” She was comparing my writing to the style of the apostle Paul, who wrote in long, complex sentences. (If you’re not quite sure what I mean, take a little time to read through his biblical epistle of Romans.)

I wasn’t trying to impress the professor or other students with my writing style or trying to sound profound and scholarly. I actually detest such pretensions. It was simply the natural cumulative effect of having read so many books by so many authors who wrote that way. I didn’t consciously try to imitate their style; I was just being who I had become.

So read, but be careful what you read because it can affect your writing style. Don’t imitate. Be yourself.

Now it’s time for me to resume my reading. I’m trying to learn about medical practices used during the War Between the States. And that’s one of my ongoing writing projects. It might take a while, but when I’ve learned enough, maybe I’ll be able to write a book about it.

What are you reading? What are you learning? What are you becoming as a result of your reading and learning? What are you writing?

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