What gives you the right to write about that? (Mistake #57)

I was asked this when my book on coeliac disease (or gluten intolerance) came out, by a potential reader who had the condition. She seemed offended, almost, that someone who wasn’t a coeliac sufferer, or a nutritionist, or a gastroenterologist, or a doctor or medic of any kind, and not even, say, a caterer with knowledge of special dietary requirements, but a mere plain old writer, could dare to assume enough expertise about such a niche subject to write a book on it.

I told them this. As someone with no personal knowledge of the condition and not qualified in any aspect of it, in order to write about the subject I was compelled to research it in great depth, from scratch, leaving few stones unturned. I interviewed people with gluten sensitivity, and I interviewed dietitians and other experts. Lots of them. This enabled me to build up a clear and broad spectrum of knowledge and information, from which I could draw in a balanced manner to write the book – one suitable for all readers.

A coeliac sufferer writing the book? There would be a risk that he or she would assume their experience of the disease was complete and representative of all others’ – and perhaps skimp on research. A specialist writing the book? There would be the chance of it being perhaps too ‘medical’ – not lay enough.

A writer writing the book? I can’t see an obvious disadvantage – as arrogant as that may sound. Without question, sufferers and medical experts have written great books about a wide range of health conditions (I have read many), but a writer can be objective in a way sufferers can’t, and clear in a way some specialists may not be able to manage – essential when writing consumer health guidebooks.

I don’t think my doubter was convinced, which I took as a failure of my powers of explanation.

‘How on earth can you write about childcare issues when you don’t have any children?’ I was once asked by a childcare expert I was interviewing for an article for a parenting magazine.

My response was similar: I interview parents, I interview parenting experts… but she was unsure too.

You see, it happens quite a bit.

It should start happening to you at some point. And I do mean ‘should’ not ‘might’ – because you should be writing about subjects which are perhaps outside your comfort zone. I see too many students stick safely to their pet subjects, and this is a bit like trying to learn to play tennis by only experimenting with and practising your favourite serves. No, no, no – you need to tackle volleys, drop shots, lobs, forehands and backhands as well. And if you want to write, you need to write all sorts of stuff for all sorts of markets.

When writing for magazines and newspapers, you not only need to interview those experts I mentioned – but quote them too. Editors and readers expect this level of authority. They want to hear the words of specialists.

When writing books, I don’t think you do. At least, I didn’t – and I’ve written four books on food allergies and food intolerances in which I can’t recall quoting a soul. For some reason – perhaps one of you can tell me why – editors and readers seem quite happy for you to author as the expert, entirely in your voice. Perhaps because the reader assumes, what with you Being an Author and all, that you’re very, very trustworthy. Your name is on the cover. They believe you. You’re Important. Even if you’re not.

Anyway, my point: you should never think you do not have the right to write about everything. You do. The beauty of concrete, the mating rituals of elk, the history of Corsican monks, the psychology of singing in the bathroom, the people who drill holes in their heads (raises hand), the haunted hotels of Luton, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Anything.

Never forget it. Nor doubt it. Never apologise for it. Know why you have the right. Explain it when questioned. Defend yourself when scoffed at. And never let it stop you.

What’s the subject most alien to you which you have written about? Or would like to write about but don’t feel you can?

Comments 11

  • Hi, Alex

    Excellent post.

    Archery was the subject I wrote about that I knew nothing about, really. But It was so interesting! I got out there and interviewed lots of archers and got two paid articles out of it. The archers I spoke to were so welcoming and explained everything in layman's terms so I understood. So I agree with you – go out and write about what you don't know. Thorough research is key! That was two years ago and I still think about those archers. It always brings a smile to my face. It wasn't until three weeks ago that I had a go at archery, though! Am hooked now!

    I'd love to write about the Egyptians and stuff like that but haven't got round to it yet (blushes!) But your post has reminded me to be more adventurous!

    Thank you, Alex

    Julie xx

  • I had a fashion column in a magazine for 12 months. Don't ask me how. My fashion motto has always been – if it fits – it's a bonus!

  • That's really interesting. I am currently unpublished (grrr) but pitching mags left right and centre. Thanks to your advice (as a tutor) I have started to go out of my comfort zone a little in my idea hunting.. and will now try and take the next step and pitch with something I previously knew little about.

    Just got to work up the nerve…

  • @ Julie – nice story. Bet they'd never had anyone interviewing them – hardly a 'sexy' subject is it – so maybe that's why they were so helpful and keen? There's a lesson there…

    @ Simon – It's okay that I laughed, isn't it?

    @ LM – 'left right and centre' pitching is the way to go! Maybe take a leaf out of Julie's book and pitch on something quirky and niche like archery?

    Thanks for comments, all.

  • I used to get this a lot in the days when I wrote about careers for various careers-info publishers. When I was researching articles, I often found that people were surprised I had no experience as, say, a merchant seaman or a professional dancer. I regularly had to explain that I was a professional writer, and the reason I was interviewing them was to get feedback from someone who actually worked in the job concerned. Like yourself, however, I don't think my interviewees were always convinced!

  • Interesting, Nick. Do you think it would be different now? (Because people are generally more media savvy – and aware of what journalists and writers do?)

  • Probably not, IMO. We're only going back 10 to 15 years, and I doubt if things have changed that much since then. Your own experience seems to back that up as well.

  • I must admit, Alex, I assumed you were gluten-intolerant but only, I suppose, as I thought (wrongly!) that would have been the spur to write the book! (Perhaps that's what the doubting lady thought too). But, reading your piece, I agree – why shouldn't you write about it? Think about Jo Frost, 'Supernanny', writer and presenter. She doesn't have any children of her own but does anyone question her ability to front the show or to be an authority on the subject?

  • Thanks! Yes, good pt re: supernanny. I guess I think too many writers erect these fences in their path – "I can't write about x, or y, or z" – and it's restrictive on their careers and outlook on writing.

  • This is so true – because it is easier to acquire subject knowledge than to acquire the ability to write well!

    In my time, I've worked for two videogames magazines despite having no knowledge of videogames. I am now editing a section of a design magazine and working on their special projects despite not even being able to draw a stick figure.

    And I think the key point to make is this: I have never misrepresented my knowledge or expertise. Rather, it's the case that editors look for certain universal skills and if you have them, you can write about anything.

  • Excellent point, Anne – thanks!

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