29 May 2013

Write What You Know (or at least do really good research first)

by Kelly DeBie

I’m at this place in my life where I’m reading a decent number of self-help books. All of which are written by so-called experts in whatever the topic is, none of which seem to have very much information that pertains to me or is relevant to my situation.

For their sakes, I’m going to assume that whatever they have written, though it doesn’t apply to me like the cover promised it would, must have mattered to them. At least when they wrote it, that is.

These books seem to not only be off the mark, but filled with judgment and condescension, as though whatever experience the author is drawing from is the only important one, and their opinion the best one available.

I suppose it sells books to suckers like me who keep buying them. I read most of them, then throw them across the room.

Sometimes I think my frustration with these books, and with so much non-fiction writing in general is that there almost needs to be this assumed superiority in knowledge, even if it’s not based in truth. Without that hook, that new and improved version of information, without the new sound bytes, how else would they sell the books?

It’s true, I suppose, that non-fiction writing just is that way.

The air of superiority, the specialized knowledge or experience that is unique to each writer, captured and packaged for the masses, even if it almost never directly applies to anyone else.

Without that, aren’t we just regurgitating the same material over and over again?

I suppose so, but then I also suppose that my suppositions mean that I’m arguing with myself.

This notion of expertise in non-fiction writing, self-help writing in particular, is both required and based in falsehood.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve grown weary of this universe full of self-proclaimed experts, particularly given that so many of them are later revealed to not actually have the knowledge base to be clinging to that illusion of superiority.

You know what I’m talking about, or at least I’m assuming you do.

The “experts” who aren’t. Who don’t actually know what they are talking about. Who have little or no expertise in the area that they claim to, but sell it well.

While it may be slightly more difficult to publish and sell a book based on an unsteady foundation of knowledge, the internet is full of people who do it on a daily basis.

The political pundits who don’t even understand the text of the laws they argue about. The parenting gurus who have had exactly one child for five months and three days. The relationship experts who have marriages that end in ugly divorces. The moms who proclaim how best to raise a child with (fill in the blank condition) even though their children don’t struggle with that issue at all. The life coaches who mostly have failed at careers of their own. The financial planners who can’t balance their own checkbooks. The hypocritical vegans. The nutrition bloggers who couldn’t even tell you where something falls on the glycemic index.


I could go on and on and on, but I’m again assuming you’re familiar with the phenomenon. Are some of those topics the type that a sufficient knowledge base can be formed with just doing adequate research? Maybe. 

Are most of them of that variety? No.

When people ask me for advice about starting to write, one of the most common things I tell them is to write what they know. Be honest. Be transparent. Be authentic. Don’t try to be something you’re not, because even if you manage to fool people for a little while, eventually you’ll be found out. Eventually people will see through it.

If that doesn’t work, and you still feel compelled to write about something you aren’t familiar with, make sure you do exceptionally good research. Cover your bases. Learn about whatever that topic is in depth. Then learn more.

Understand though that sometimes there is simply no substitute for experience.

And remember that once something is published, whether on the internet or in a book, it’s going to live on for all eternity. If you’re just giving a topic lip service, someone, somewhere will find out and all the delete buttons in the world won't save you.

I’d rather be unknown and have integrity than be famous for being a fraud.

But that’s just me...


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