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Writing what you *don’t* know

I’ve long believed in that old writing chestnut: Write what you know.

As Matador’s managing editor, one of the immediate attributes I’m looking for in a submission is whether the author truly seems to know where and what he or she is writing about. It doesn’t take long–generally 15 seconds or so–to make that call.

But sometimes, maybe you can write about what you don’t know.

Like when an editor sends you an email, offers you a feature length article in a magazine, and tells you the rate is $800.

(Did I mention your bank account has exactly $246.20 in it?)


So yes, I accepted the assignment about travel trends among older adults, a subject about which I knew almost nothing.

The deadline was ridiculous (just the kind I like)–a few days. And the amount of research I had to do was significant. Finding and then reviewing statistics and travel data, calling tour companies to fact check, and reaching out to contacts in public relations and the travel industry for quotes, anecdotes, and recommendations* have consumed the past few days. I’ve spent more time on the phone in the past 48 hours than in the entire month preceding this assignment.

But here I am, on the other side of it, having learned a few interesting things:

1. Senior travel is a huge trend. This is obvious enough–the graying of the population is a global phenomenon, according to the UN, and here in the US, the older population is projected to double by 2030. Maybe this is why we’re seeing lots of older adults joining Matador’s travel community. But the trend is significant enough that it’s likely to affect travelers of all ages in big ways and small ones. Bye-bye, bathtubs; hello, shower stalls. This market is too big and potentially lucrative to ignore.

2. There are trips out there that boggle the mind. Smithsonian Journeys’ $62,000+ “Around the World by Private Jet,” for instance, a 22-day jaunt is one of them. And that one’s a bargain compared to the $100,000+ “Hidden Corners around the World by Private Jet.” And yes, I checked- there’s actually a market for these trips.

3. You CAN write about what you don’t know. This doesn’t apply to all types of travel writing, but for pieces that are focused more on information than experience, good old fashioned research and your usual writing skills are just about all you need to produce a solid, engaging article. And speaking of research, if you’re enrolled in or are a graduate of MatadorU’s travel writing program, be sure to check out the How to Do Desk Research bonus module, which I wrote. It has lots of useful information and resources that can help any travel writer. (And if you’re not enrolled in MatadorU, why not? You can click through to the U using the banner on the right side of this page.)

Have you written about a topic about which you knew little? How was the experience and what did you learn?

*by the way, this is another benefit of press trips: You can make useful contacts who can be called upon while working on future assignments.


10 responses »

  1. An old journo professor of mine used to say that half of being a reporter is faking it. Don’t take that the wrong way — a lot of times, faking it won’t do you any good. But it DOES do you good in the situation you just described, situations where you might not know anything about the topic to begin with. Because then you learn it. So maybe this should be spun differently: half of being a good journo is knowing you can quickly learn things you don’t know, having the confidence to do that.

    Btw, I think I’m rivaling you on the bank account right about now.

  2. Totally agree with Alexis. One of my absolutely favorite things about being a journalist is constantly learning–gathering information, and then synthesizing it. And then pretending to be an expert. It’s a rush.

    • Simone-

      Agreed- you learn that you’re interested in subjects that hadn’t even remotely occurred to you before. And then you put it together with all these other things you’ve learned and voila- everything suddenly starts to make just a little more sense. 😉

  3. I think it’s part of being a professional – maybe you weren’t an expert in the subject, but you clearly knew how to do the research and write a great article! I think it would be very difficult to be a freelancer and *only* write about “what you know”.

  4. I think you need to convince an editor that in order to write about this subject, you have to know your what you are writing about The perfect way to gain the knowledge? Taking a $100,000 private jet tour in a specially outfitted Boeing 747, of course!

  5. I’m writing a piece right now on a subject I knew little about…and I’m finding I knew even LESS than I first thought. That can be frustrating–not knowing what questions to ask because I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s been the biggest challenge for me with this piece…but I think it’s working out. I generally end every interview with 1. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think I should know and 2. Is there anyone you think I should talk to about this? That usually covers me pretty well, I’ve found.

    • This contradicts the faking-it advice, but I find when I’m covering a story I don’t know much about and talking to a source about it and unsure of what to ask, sometimes being honest with the source is the best strategy. I say something like, “All of this is new to me, so do you think we could start with the basics?” That also forces the source to boil down whatever they’re about to tell me — instead of giving me details my readers don’t care about. Then, if I want more details, I ask for them.

    • @Megan – I second the idea of asking “is there anything else I don’t know?” I write about the pet industry, but when talking to an expert even if their idea of what else you should know is slightly off topic, it may create an idea for another article!
      @Alexis – I agree. Getting the basics is essential


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