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Write What You Know--Or Don't Know

One of the many bits of advice given to aspiring, struggling, and "blocked" writers is this: Write what you know.

That's good advice. Write about topics of which you already have a degree of knowledge. Write about things with which you have personal experience. Events, deeds, people, emotions that you know about first hand.

But that advice immediately and severely limits every writer. Each person has only a certain amount of knowledge about a limited number of subjects. We cannot know everything.

Even of the subjects we know well, there will always be someone else somewhere in the world who will know more about them than we know. Besides, there will always be more to learn about any topic, no matter how much you know about it. After all, there are no know-it-alls in this life.

One of my favorite quips by legendary humorist Will Rogers is this: "We're all ignorant--just on different subjects."

So what does a writer do when he has written all he knows? When she has written about all she has experienced? When the muse remains stoically silent and inspiration won't come?

That's when the writer takes another, perhaps even better, piece of advice: Write what you don't know!

That doesn't mean you venture where only fools tread, setting yourself up as an expert on things about which you know absolutely nothing. Readers would never trust a writer who attempted to write about something of which the author knew nothing.

But writers should write about what they don't know. What I mean is that they should study something about which they know little or nothing, learn as much as they can about the topic, and then share in writing what they've learned.

At the risk of using a personal experience, which I'll readily admit is flawed, limited, and imperfect, I'll do just that to illustrate my point. I'll write what I know about this issue.

While taking a post-graduate course on the history of the South, the vast amount of reading the professor required of me for our one-on-one sessions that he had arranged made me realize that I knew next to nothing about the civilian governance of the Confederacy. Although much had been written about the military leaders, campaigns, and battles of the period, little coverage had been given to the civilian side. The professor encouraged me to continue seeking sources on the topic, which I did, even after I had finished his course.

I discovered numerous articles that had been written on various and sundry aspects of the civilian government of the Confederacy. Book-length treatments of the subject, however, were limited in number. Moreover, the most recently published work on the topic had been in 1944, more than 70 years earlier. I decided it was time for an update.

That was the impetus for what eventually became my first traditionally published book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries by McFarland, 2016. (I preferred my original title, Governing the Confederacy, but that's another story.)

I had written what I didn't know. I learned. I shared what I had learned. And I'm still learning, keeping the prospect open for additional future writings on the topic.

The same process was behind my books Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies and Evangelism and Expulsion: Missionary Work Among the Cherokees Until Removal (TouchPoint Press, 2021 and 2022, respectively). I knew a little about the topics, but I wanted to learn more about them. So I studied and read and researched. Then I wrote about what I had learned.

And that's how it continues for a good writer. What subjects are the objects of your curiosity? The possibilities for a good writer are endless.

So write what you know. Capitalize on your current knowledge and experience. But never stop learning, searching, and researching. Stay curious.

But don't stop there. Share with others what you've learned and are learning through your writing. You'll never again run out of ideas for writing!

That is what it means to write what you don't know.

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