Don’t (Just) Write What You Know

Typewriter

 

Writers who are starting out are encouraged to write what they know. They are told that such an approach will lend an air of authenticity to their words, and will somehow be ‘easier’.  It’s good advice, but it’s not great advice.

Rather than write what you know, write what’s important.

Research goes hand-in-hand with writing. If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. You are also a researcher. You are the kind of person who can find stuff out – by talking to people, by networking, by using libraries, by asking questions.

 

No matter your genre, if you only write what you know, you’ll only write one book. You might publish several, but they will all be about the same thing, and get repetitive. The only way to grow as a writer, and to keep yourself and your readers happy, is to stretch yourself. The only way you can do that is by finding out about things you don’t know about, and writing about them in the way that only you can.

 

What annoys you? What intrigues you? What upsets you? What issue would you like to see highlighted? Write about that.  Find the thing that fires you, that excites extremes of passion in you, and write about that.  If you feel you’re not enough of an ‘expert’ on it, become one – or become enough of one to write authentically about it.

Then write. You’ll be following the advice of ‘writing what you know’, but you’ll be writing about what you know now,  rather than what you’ve always known. You’re writing will, then, always be fresh, always ‘new’. It will keep you engaged, and be engaging for your readers.

Words of Advice to (Potential) Contributors

It’s fifteen years since I first worked as a researcher for a television programme. Since then, I have researched for hundreds of shows on radio, television and print articles.

 

Working as a researcher basically means that you do this: Find people who would be willing to talk, meet with them, discover what they had to say for themselves, write up the notes of those meetings, discuss those meetings with colleagues and then book the contributors for filming.

 

It’s not rocket science, but it’s something I really enjoy doing. In my first researcher’s job, I learnt that not everyone makes the final cut. The original brief is a guide – it’s not set in stone.  It’s a map – a document detailing where you are and where you (think) you’d like to get to. There are a selection of routes, and the one you think you’re going to take is not necessarily the one you eventually traverse.

 

What that means is that people who give of their time – sometimes three or four hours of their time – and expertise may not necessarily end up in the programme they’ve been interviewed for. It’s annoying. It can rankle. But it’s not personal.

 

Here’s the thing, we work hard to put together the best programme we can, but that doesn’t just mean we only use the best people. It means we use the bits that best inform the audience of the message we’re trying to send. Often, in the course of filming, we’ll find that the programme is going in a direction we hadn’t anticipated. We find that what we thought was important isn’t important to our contributors or our audience – or isn’t as important as we thought.  Sometimes, a contributor will say something that triggers a worthwhile diversion from the original route.

Sometimes, a production company will be informed by the commissioning station that they have changed their mind about the focus or the thrust of the piece.

Sometimes, an editor and a director will find themselves grappling with the task of whittling 40 hours of great footage down to a commercial hour (which is only 52 minutes). That’s a job I would hate. How do you make the decision? How do you decide what goes, what stays, and where the bits that are staying should go in relation to each other? The final decision is not a reflection on the quality of an individual’s contribution.

 

In my experience – on both sides of the camera – you don’t find out that you’re not in the show until you sit down to watch it.  It’s only the most thoughtful and courteous of  producers that will let you know you haven’t made the cut.

 

So, if you agree to contribute to a show on radio or television and don’t see or hear yourself when it goes to air, don’t take it personally. It really, really, isn’t meant that way. Please, however, be gracious. Understand that your contribution was valued but for some reason or another – or a combination of reasons – what you had to say didn’t ‘fit’ in the final 52 minutes.

 

Spitting the dummy and working yourself into a state of high dudgeon won’t do you any favours.  Saying you’ll never have anything to do with anyone making a programme ever again is an empty, useless threat – which pretty much guarantees there won’t ever be an ‘again’. Demanding to know why you weren’t part of the programme – even after you’ve received a polite, respectful, email telling you why – won’t endear you to anyone, either.

 

Like anyone, researchers and producers and directors and presenters are human; and we prefer to surround ourselves with people who are easy to work with. Given a choice, we will select the contributor who understands that we can’t use every word recorded; the contributor who realises they are part of a programme – not the programme in its entirety.  Often, it pains the production team more than the contributor him or herself if their piece ends up on the cutting room floor.

 

It is the nature of the beast that someone will end up being cut. Sometimes, that someone will be you.