25 Jul

Good Communicators Develop Tools for Writing What They Don’t Know

By Christa Skiles 

You’ve probably heard the adage, “Write what you know.” But, when you’re a communications professional at a full-service marketing and public relations agency, more often than not you’re called upon to write about a diverse array of topics, many of which you probably won’t know much about at the start of your engagement. 


That’s OK, and maybe even better. Good communicators relish those projects most of all. They easily transition from topic to topic because they know that the fundamentals of good writing don’t change just because the subject matter does.  


The truth is that someone approaching a subject for the first time can be better equipped to tackle the assignment than someone who’s been embedded in that world for years. Why? 


We ask lots of questions and do our research. Precisely because we don’t have the expertise you do in your field, we don’t take anything for granted. While something may seem obvious to you, it is less likely to be obvious to us … and if it’s not obvious to us, it’s probably not obvious to your audience either.  


We boil down a message to its essence. The more you know about a subject, the harder it can be to step back from it. Are you so mired in detail that you no longer see the big picture of the story you’re trying to tell? Do you use a lot of jargon? Will you naturally take shortcuts when you’re talking about a process? It can be easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about what’s important to your customers or stakeholders instead of asking them. We’re used to putting ourselves in the shoes of your readers and thinking about every aspect of your business or service from their point of view. This gives us the ability to wade through extraneous information with a laser focus on what’s really important. 


We bring a fresh perspective. Many public relations professionals are either former journalists or have been working with reporters our entire careers. Even those of us who never spent time in the profession likely have several journalism courses under our belt. This means we’re trained to look at your news from every possible angle. As a result, we’re more likely to find the unique or fresh perspective that differentiates your story and helps you stand out from the crowd. 


Of course, sooner or later, we’ll also gain experience in what were once new subjects and maybe even become expert at them. The key to our continued success is that we never forget to approach every similar story as though we are hearing and telling it for the first time. 


So, instead of that old — perhaps somewhat boring — piece of writing advice, I like this theory, which comes from fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin: 


“As for ‘Write what you know,’ I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of ‘know.’”  


I’ve never been called upon to write professionally about imaginary countries or alien societies, but you get the idea. Good writing starts by acquiring knowledge, making astute observations and then sharing them in a fresh, creative way. With those guidelines in mind, you’re always writing about what you know.