A woman seated on steps reads a book.

How to write about subjects you know nothing about

‘Write about what you know’ is a common piece of writing advice.

But you should also write about things you don’t know sometimes too.

When I mention that I write for Cosmos, a science print and online publication, people sometimes wrinkle their foreheads, raise their eyebrows, or purse their lips.

Then, they’ll usually follow up with a pointed question: “But do you have any training in that area?”

The answer is: sort of. I’ve completed a Master of Psychology (Forensic) which, over two long years, drilled the mechanics and the importance of the scientific method into me.

It’s allowed me to feel reasonably comfortable writing about psychological phenomena such as the Mandela Effect, criminology-related topics and questionable scientific studies.

But it’s true that in fields of science to which I’ve had little exposure – such as space, palaeontology, technology, and energy, just to name a few – I’m pretty much all at sea.

So why would I, as a journalist, agree to write on subjects that I know little to nothing about?

Because that’s what we’re trained to do.

To niche or not

There are some clear advantages to cultivating what used to be called a ‘beat’, now referred to more commonly as a niche.

Gaining a depth of knowledge in a particular area and cultivating a network of sources helps keep fresh story ideas flowing. (Steal my five favourite ways to generate saleable story ideas.)

Becoming a specialist, rather than a generalist, makes it easier to identify potential story ideas, spot trends, challenge inconsistencies and know exactly who to call when you want to dig deeper.

You already know the right questions to ask. You can interrogate more thoroughly.

It’s also claimed that writing in a niche as a freelance writer can help you gain higher pay rates, attract more opportunities and streamline your marketing efforts.

But there’s a lot of argument about what, exactly, constitutes a niche and whether it’s more sensible or profitable to ‘stay broad’ or ‘niche down’.

For example, some would argue that ‘travel writing’ isn’t a niche – but ‘sustainable travel in South-East Asia’ is.

Rather than getting bogged down in the debate, I’d suggest whatever interests you today, and look for sweet spot overlaps when you can give a familiar subject a fresh spin.

For example, while on a travel writing assignment, I toured the catering arm of Singapore Airlines and learned that food and wine tastes differently at altitude.

That got me wondering about the reasons why, which led to me breaking into Cosmos with this travel-science hybrid story why airline food tastes so bad.

Write about what you know (or don’t know … yet)

Some people think it’s preposterous to write about subjects you know little or nothing about.

But at some point, some editor will ask you to pen prose on some topic or other you’re less comfortable with.

And you’re going to say ‘yes’, for a whole host of reasons.

Maybe because you need the money, or you want the byline, or there’s something about the topic that piques your curiosity, or because you’re already sick about writing about your narrow niche, or because it might lead to profitable new opportunities, or because (as a freelancer) you might get better, more interesting offers from this publication – but not if you say ‘no’ today.

In any event, there are sound reasons why specialist subjects shouldn’t be left to subject matter experts.

Take science, for instance. I’ve learned that many scientists, though brilliant, are far too immersed in their own internal world, and far too caught up in their own specialist jargon, to be able to explain clearly, simply, and efficiently exactly what it is that their research reveals.

They might have PhDs in obscure, esoteric realms of science I’ve never even heard of, but they struggle to break things down in a way helps lets the average person, who lacks their training, comprehend their work.

As an outsider, I can come along, often with a puzzled Louis Theroux manner, and ask the basic entry-level questions, because that’s where I’m starting from too.

In this way, being an outsider doesn’t hinder the quest for knowledge, it actually helps it.

That’s because the outsider’s perspective is exactly what’s needed when it comes to translating complex scientific concepts to something the average reader can understand.

(There are some limits to my willingness to tackle certain subjects though. For example, you’ll never find me writing about sport, because I don’t care about it, and I don’t want to know about it.)

How to do your homework

It’s easy to agree to write about what you know.

When you’re asked to write about something that’s not usually in your wheelhouse, you can either panic, baulk at the task, and give in to imposter syndrome, or you can gather your wits and do your homework.

Doing some reading around the topic is always a good place to start.

Google Scholar, the Directory of Open Journals, or the relevant professional associations or organisations can serve as a springboard.

Though many academic articles live behind a paywall, I’ve found that the corresponding authors listed on the paper’s abstract are often more than willing to supply you with a copy upon request (and will likely offer to answer any questions you might have).

Your early reading will probably lead to more specific queries which you can then nut out individually.

(The latest 24 hours of my Google search history includes ‘what are upconversion raw earth particles’, ‘sonification meaning’ and ‘how big is a grain of sand in nanometres’.)

Then, if you haven’t already done so, it’s time to figure out who the subject matter experts are, and to request interviews with them.

Some of the questions I’ve found repeatedly useful are:

  • Explain this to me as though you’re talking to a five-year-old because that’s the reality here (it usually gets a laugh).
  • Can you think of an analogy that would make this clearer?

(For example, one scientist described working at the nanoscale as being like the difference between building with Lego Duplo and Nanoblocks, which was gold.)

  • Is there anyone else you think I should speak to about this?

The reality is that you will spend more time – much more time – researching than you will writing.

And then, consistent with the iceberg theory of writing, you’ll then have to resist the temptation to put everything you’ve learned into the story.

The reader doesn’t need to know it all. Only you do.

Getting it right versus stuffing it up

Given the scale of editorial cuts over the last couple of decades, there are a lot less fact-checkers and sub-editors than there used to be, all of which increases the potential for errors to creep into a story.

So, when a subject is complicated or technical, I typically run a draft past my interviewees first.

When I specify that it’s for the purposes of factual accuracy only, most people will be perfectly reasonable and not berate you for including alternative points of view, attempt to turn it into an advertorial, rework the structure, or change the quotes of other interviewees (all of which has happened, but rarely).

Even if you do all this, you’ll have to make peace with the fact that you’ll still make mistakes and some eagle-eyed reader will, inevitably, pick them up.

For instance, Australian Geographic requires that writers run drafts to go past two subject matter experts prior to submitting to the editor – which I did when I wrote this story about an historical mining accident, and its links to contemporary work safety issues.

Still, when the story appeared, one reader made the withering remark, “Lovely, but Crinum is not an open cut mine. Its underground.”

You live and learn.