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My Dad Said, "Write What You Know"

Understand it back and forth before you try to explain it to anybody else.
My dad, a gifted speaker and writer in his own right, gave me my first and best advice on writing: write what you know. We’ve all heard it, but if you're a professional communicator, your first reaction may be thanks, but my job is to write about things I don’t know.
Yet the advice is still useful.

He meant I should write my "little stories" about Matthews, Missouri, not some place I'd never been. But he meant something else, too: you should be pretty well versed in any material before you try to explain it, expand upon it, or dress it up for somebody else.

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Many of the students and professional communicators who ask me to help them want tips to save time, and shortcuts to less effort. But in many cases all they need to do is to follow my dad’s advice. 
We’ve all batted out work in a hurry with a few web pages in one window and a Microsoft Word document in the other, carrying ideas from the Internet to the assignment in little chunks, moving them into the document as they start to make sense, and writing around things that sound like they ought to be there but that we don’t quite get.
Stop that.
A writer is a professional explainer, someone who makes things clear, even persuasive to other people. You can’t expect to explain anything until you understand it yourself.
If you can’t state the main idea in a simple sentence of fewer than a dozen words, chances are you don’t understand it at all. The best demonstration of comprehension is the ability to restate something in simpler terms. Writing down ideas and notes as you read will help you gain that ability faster. And the act of using a highlighter – there’s a digital one in Microsoft Word, by the way – will help you remind yourself what matters in the material you’re reading.

Attempt to create a basic outline of the material – a few phrases will do. Put things in your own words to help them stick in your memory. Look up words and jargon you don’t understand. We all know we’re supposed to do this, but more often we intuit meaning from context, and this isn’t as wise a shortcut as you think. Disinterested, for instance, does not mean uninterested, at least not in all cases. Quota can refer to both a minimum and a proportion. And that big, Buckley-esque term you skipped over is probably there for a reason: if you don’t know it, take a few seconds and type it into the search bar. Not only will you know it next time, you’ll end up adding to the vocabulary you write with – and your teacher was right, a bigger vocabulary has its benefits.


If you can’t state the main idea in a simple sentence of fewer than a dozen words, chances are you don’t understand it at all. 

All the study tricks you used as a high school and college student have a place in the daily life of the professional writer. Studying is how we understand, and you must understand before you can explain. Think before you write or, as my dad said, write what you know – and if you don’t know it, learn it.


Mike's Calendar
Topic Organization Date Location
Professional Writing A trade association March Washington, DC
Storytelling A trade association March Washington, DC
Speechwriting PSA March 19-20 Washington, DC
Speechwriting Georgetown University April 15-17 Washington, DC
Storytelling PSA Online Speechwriting School May 27 Online
PR Writing IABC World Conference June 14-17 Chicago
Advanced Speechwriting PSA August 17 New York City

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