Ask just about anyone what you should write, and they will tell you to write about what you know. This is very good advice and it should be heeded, but what is a writer to do when what they know isn’t enough?
Writers and readers are two sides of the same coin, and writers need to keep this in mind when putting pen to paper. When you write for your readers, you are entering into a relationship with them, and trust is an absolute requirement in a relationship that is going to last. So, if you want your readers to be faithful to you, it is important that you establish yourself as a voice that your audience can trust.
Readers today have a lot of options when it comes to the reading material they pick up and stick with. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, and it is not always easy to predict who will join your readership. Today’s readers also have a wealth of information at their fingertips, and they are becoming increasingly adept at fact-checking. If you choose to write on a subject that you know little about, chances are your work will end up in the hands of a better informed reader. You might be tempted to ask yourself, “So what? A reader knows better than me, what’s the big deal?”
For many readers, reading for pleasure is an act of exploration and escapism. They are leaving the confines of their world and immersing themselves in a realm of the author’s creation. They are temporarily suspending the reality in which they live in order to believe in an alternative reality that you have built. In this new universe that you and your readers are exploring, your readers have chosen to trust you and to follow you. They want to see that you and the world you are putting in front of them are trustworthy. If you hold up your part of the relationship, then your readers are likely to keep coming back from more. If you leave little inaccuracies and mistakes sprinkled throughout, though, you are violating the faith your readers have placed in you, making it much more difficult for them to lose themselves in your creative vision.
Writing, after all, is an effort to construct something believable. The point, especially when writing fiction, is to create something that readers can accept as true. It is vitally important that writers avoid situations in which readers must suspend their disbelief. If we write about something that someone else has really experienced, but we write it unrealistically, it won’t be believable.
My editor gave me an excellent example of this in action. He was recently asked to read a piece about a man canoeing across a lake. In the story, the protagonist sets out in the afternoon across a wide, long body of water, which is smooth as glass, while a gentle breeze keeps him comfortably cool.
“Oh, you’ll stay cool, alright, but you won’t be comfortable,” my editor grumbled. “The waves will be splashing over the gunwales. They’ll be all up on you, and you’ll want to be wearing clothes and shoes that dry quickly. Getting soaked tends to keep you pretty chilly.”
Having canoed across some wide, long lakes in the afternoon, he can tell you from experience that the wind travels the length of the lake and stirs up big, obnoxious waves even on relatively calm days.
“There is nothing glassy or smooth about large lakes, except very early in the morning,” he told me. “This author has described a very appealing scene that is totally unrealistic. I just can’t get behind it, and that puts the brakes on my enjoyment of the story. That one moment of inaccuracy was like hitting a big snag, because I knew what I should be seeing in my head, since I’ve seen it before and I know it, but that wasn’t what I was being given by the author. It just didn’t work, and it did a lot to damage my faith in the author’s credibility.”
Some of your readers may remain loyal to you despite these hiccups and authorial faux pas, but others will not be so forgiving—nor should they be. There is very little that is more mean-spirited than making a reader fall in love with a story, only to have the author break their trust. So, how can you avoid breaching the trust of your readers?
The safest bet is simply to write about the things you know by heart. It is difficult to go wrong writing about topics that are familiar to you. You are unlikely to make many mistakes, because you are familiar with all the little details about those subjects, and the details are vitally important to your readers. Getting the details right can mean the difference between gaining and losing a reader, or getting published and receiving a rejection letter. Resigning yourself to only ever writing what you know is a pretty boring fix for this problem, though.
Sticking with what is safe and familiar can cost a writer points, and staying inside our comfort zone is neither any fun for our readers nor very good for us writers. It doesn’t stretch our creative muscles, and it can become old-hat for readers very quickly. How then do we balance writing what we know with thinking outside the box and being inventive? The solution is actually pretty simple.
If you don’t know what you need to know to make your writing topnotch, then grow what you know!
The same mountain of new and fantastic information that your readers can tap into is at your fingertips, as well, and with a little elbow grease and ingenuity, you can make the most of it. Doing your research and checking your facts is essential to establishing faith with your readers. This is true regardless of what you are writing. Even a fictional world must be internally consistent and must follow its own internal rules, though those rules do not always have to work in the real world.
Being diligent in your research comes with a whole host of other benefits to you and your writing. Not only will it improve the trust your readers have in you, doing research gives you the opportunity to explore new possibilities, new ideas, and new directions to take your work. It can expand your horizons. It can be an awesome source of inspiration. Research can even cure a pesky case of writers block.
The resources and prompts in the Research and Credibility section of our site are intended to help you develop your research and sleuthing abilities. They are designed to test your mastery of information gathering techniques and to put your skills into action. You can also use them as inspiration and motivation tools if you are looking for new creative avenues or if you want to explore new genres of writing and areas of potential interest.
Any good writer and wise researcher is also a skeptic, always looking for evidence that new information is true before they accept it as fact. So, if you have your doubts about the value of research, we support your desire to question us and invite you to try this little experiment. You don’t have to take our word for it, test the value of research for yourself!
(Roggen Wulf, 2014)