Everyone (who writes) has heard the phrase, “Write what you know.” Sure, I can do that. I’ve always written what I’ve known. Even at MSU, when I took classes like Music & Culture, I understood it and knew how to write about it. Even when I had to write what I was maybe a little unfamiliar with, I had the time to figure it out, and I was never learning something completely new. Still, it’s always harder when you aren’t sure about the topic of which you’re writing.
So what do you do when you’re writing what you don’t know?
My first job out of college is a great one. I love my co-workers, I’m never bored and always busy, and I have the best schedule. But here’s the thing—I work in a megachurch. Not dissing churches or megachurches, just pointing out the fact that I didn’t grow up in a Christian household. I don’t know much about the Bible. I don’t know it at all, to be honest. And now I’m regularly in creative meetings, helping write scripts, brainstorming for new sermon series, editing the synopses for these sermons, and I don’t know a thing about the Bible and I’m only starting to learn about Christianity, which is a fairly expansive thing to learn about.
The best way to write what you don’t know is to make it something that you know. MSU and the Professional Writing program certainly helped teach me how to learn: where my best resources are, how to continually keep myself educated in my chosen field, and what to do when I have no idea what to do (get help!).
Learning on the job is harder than learning in school was. I am a human being who works 40-45 hours a week, sometimes more from home, and the rest of the time I want to sleep. I don’t want to study. I’m not in school anymore. So now I’m struggling with figuring out how to learn with the time I have at work and the small amount of time (2-3 hours a week) I spend at home doing work.
Taking notes is my new biggest helper. When I’m in meetings, I’m scribbling down everything new that I hear. I’m watching the way that this church runs and the people I need to talk to about various things, because there are a lot of people here. One thing that PW taught me about work is that observation is your very best friend. It’s thanks to knowing how to observe people, protocol, and preferences that I’ve learned as much as I have being here. It’s about always keeping your eyes and ears open and devising a system to remember what you learn—notes just happens to be my system.
In the more than four months I’ve been with Redemption, I’ve found that a combination of solutions is best in order to write what you don’t know. The first is observation, as mentioned above. The second is quick research. Let’s say I have to be in a meeting in ten minutes and we’re going to discuss what we’re doing for Christmas. I haven’t been to a Christmas service since I was ten and I barely remember the Christmas story.
Wikipedia is a great source for some quick research on the Christmas story, or on anything I need to read up about in twenty minutes or less. Professors have always tried to downplay the validity of Wikipedia, but it’s been one of the most reliable sources I’ve ever used. I get why professors insist on not using it, since information can be easily misrepresented, and for that reason I would never quote it in a paper or use Wikipedia as my only source. But it is a valuable source nonetheless, and one that can quickly equip me with the information I need. I can walk into the Christmas meeting with an idea of what’s happening and what people are going to be talking about.
The third is using your resources, people being one of these resources. There are times when I can’t find a Bible verse that says what I need and I also have no idea where to look. I work with people who are so much more comfortable and knowledgeable about the Bible than I am, so sometimes I propose a question to the room at large and hope that I get an answer, or approach someone I know is knowledgeable and can help me, which is another way I can learn on the job. The wisdom of others is valuable: if someone says that they know the perfect scripture that would work for this synopsis or this banner, I watch them look it up. From there, I not only learn what is in the Bible, but also how to navigate the pages as well as where to search online for what I need. Having co-workers who have different strengths than I do is a huge asset on the job.
However, there’s a plus that comes with having to write what I don’t know. Unlike many people at the church, who have grown up in Christian homes and knowing the “churchy” language and lingo, I can put website content, sermon descriptions, sermon titles, etc. into layman’s terms. If we’re aiming for an audience outside the church, I know what sounds too churchy or too pushy or what people won’t really understand. And this makes my opinion important, because I can think like someone outside of the church.
In short, writing about what you don’t know is challenging, difficult, and often times frustrating, but it can also give you an edge over people who know all too well what they’re talking about. What’s important is to strive to do great work and to use your lack of knowledge to your advantage—look at it as an opportunity, rather than a handicap. Pretty soon, we’ll be writing what we know with the added value of still being able to look at things from the other side.
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki is an alumni of the Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. She currently works as the Marketing Project Manager at Redemption World Outreach Center (please excuse the website, they’re redesigning) in Greenville, South Carolina. She essentially keeps the entire department organized and on track while simultaneously updating the website, attending meetings, editing, and once again, organizing. Tweet her at @vanessalevpom or check out her personal blog.