How To Write About Things You Know Nothing About
The simple but effective method you can use to sound like an expert — even if you aren’t one
If there’s anything you should know about writing for clients, it’s this: you’re going to have to write about things you know absolutely nothing about.
In fact, unless you’re writing in a highly-specific niche, you’re going to spend about 99% of your time writing on things you’re clueless about. Clients will expect you to write like an expert — whether you are one or not.
As a freelance writer, some of my most obscure projects have included product reviews for hypoallergenic cat food, a blog post detailing the life of a famous Youtuber, daily horoscopes, a pamphlet on how to effectively communicate with your teenage children, and a series of articles on Chinese cuisine.
Going into these projects, I had little to no prior knowledge about these subjects — it’s not as if I’d actually tried the cat food myself or had real teenage children to communicate with.
However, what I did have was unlimited access to the internet and the ability to research well. I think that most freelancers can agree that, whether you love it or hate it, research is an inevitable part of the job.
That being said, research doesn’t need to be painful. You don’t need to dread every Google search or keyword entry. You also don’t need to limit yourself to only writing about what you already know.
There’s a simple but incredibly effective science to writing about things you know nothing about — as well as making the research process a little less time-consuming:
Only use high-authority websites when you’re researching
One of the hardest assignments I ever had to complete for a client was an extensive buyer’s guide for drum cymbals. If you don’t already know, a buyer’s guide is an article (usually lengthy) designed to help consumers figure out the “best” brand or product to buy — as well as answer any general questions they might have about that product.
For my assignment, the buyer’s guide needed to be several thousand words and include information about all the different types of cymbals you can buy and how drummers use them.
Had I actually been a drummer, this might’ve been a piece of cake. Unfortunately, I don’t have a musical bone in my body. The only time I’ve ever touched a drumset was the time I tripped over one in a music shop and almost ended up face-first in the snare drum.
Yet, for this assignment, I needed to be an expert on cymbals. I had to understand what they were, how they worked, and what people should look for when buying one.
Researching all that might sound as easy as typing a few words into the Google search bar, but finding accurate information is a lot harder than it seems.
Although there might be plenty of legitimate websites out there with useful information, there are just as many sites that are written by people who are only pretending to know what they’re talking about.
Identifying the difference usually comes down to one question: are you using a high-authority website?
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, high-authority websites are those that are written by highly-respected, knowledgeable people. Government sites are a good example — you know that any information you’re getting will be accurate. A site that ends with a .edu or .org domain usually falls within that high-authority range too.
A blog post written by some random guy in his basement wouldn’t be high-authority. He might be an expert on the topic, but he also could be talking out of his ass. Unless you have to, you don’t want to take those odds.
One of the biggest issues with high-authority websites is that they’re not always easy to find or identify. There isn’t a government website that’s going to tell me about cymbals. Most of what I’ll find on that topic are blog posts, and it’s up to me to determine which ones are feeding me accurate information.
Ultimately, I ended up getting most of my information from the websites of specific, reliable cymbal brands. Even if they were trying to pitch a product, a reputable company is not going to spout inaccurate information online.
If the subject you’re talking about doesn’t have a government page you can look at (which most don’t), I recommend only getting your info from reputable companies or organizations.
At the end of the day, you need to use a high-authority website if you’re writing about something you don’t already know. Without any of your own knowledge to draw on, you have to make sure the information you’re getting is correct.
Don’t just repeat jargon
Another research-heavy project I had to complete for a client included talking about the latest car models from brands like Toyota and Ford. The assignment was geared towards mechanics and car-enthusiasts so there was no room for error.
What I quickly found was that there’s a lot of technical jargon associated with cars. Some writers might skim through all that jargon and just repeat it in their own words, but paraphrasing something you don’t understand rarely ends up well.
By simply repeating technical jargon, all you’re doing is using someone else’s words, but you aren’t adding any value to your writing. And, most of the time, someone who does know what they’re talking about will see through your act in a matter of seconds.
For that specific project, I took a little extra time to research what some of those technical words actually meant. It was time-consuming, but my finished product was a lot better — and I had an easier time writing it too.
With most projects, you’re not going to have the time to become an actual expert, but you can spend a little time trying to understand what you’re writing about.
Not only will you end up with a higher-quality piece, but you also won’t spend every second of the writing process wondering if you’re using the technical jargon correctly.
Embrace the challenge
Writing about something you know nothing about can be absolutely terrifying — if you let it be. In my experience, the difference between terror and excitement has come down to my attitude. If I begin panicking about my lack of knowledge, the entire process becomes agonizing.
Yet, if I slow down and begin viewing it as a challenge to embrace, things become infinitely easier. I may even start to have fun (which is a difficult thing to do when you’re writing about drum cymbals and car specs).
Regardless of the circumstances behind it, I’d encourage you to look at your project as a learning experience — not as a painful, impossible task.
Whether you’re a freelance writer, blogger or novelist, you’re eventually going to have to write about something you have little to no knowledge of. While researching is rarely fun, you can make the entire process much smoother by sticking to high-authority websites, taking the time to understand what you’re writing on and embracing the challenge.
You might not be an expert, but there’s no reason you can’t sound like one.