How To Write About Unfamiliar Subjects

So you got saddled with a writing assignment whose subject matter you know nothing about. It’s completely normal for writers to take on an assignment that involves a topic completely foreign to you - that’s part of the beauty of the job. Rather than shy away from the assignment, seize the opportunity to expand your intellect and to hone your writing skills on something outside your comfort zone.
Of course, that’s not to say you should venture into the great unknown without properly preparing. It can be quite a daunting task to cover anything new, no matter what the material. A highly technical piece about a scientific breakthrough can be just as challenging as a piece on foreign policy in the Middle East. What matters is that you devote yourself to covering the topic as honestly and as competently as you can. In order to do that, you have to dive into the details of your assignment with vigour.

A guest post by Maria Rainier

How to write about unfamiliar subjects

Conduct research (from trusted sources) when writing about unfamiliar subjects
The first thing you need to do when you’re writing about an unfamiliar subject is to read up on some primary sources. You can either do it the old fashioned way and check out some books at the local library, or take the easier route by searching the web. Let’s be honest here: there’s little chance that you’ll go to your library any time soon, since you can find a wealth of material on just about any topic on the web. That might be true, but the web is filled with just as much mis-information as it is with factually accurate, genuine resources.
So whether you’re writing a story on college student loans, election year politics, or the latest summer blockbuster movie, be sure that you’re writing from a learned perspective. Cite sources and figures in your piece from reliable websites - those that have material vetted by industry experts. Otherwise you’re just contributing to all the filler content floating around on the web.

One point to note: make sure you've gone through this check list which shows you the proper procedure to follow when using information from other websites

Don’t make things up as you go, even when writing about unfamiliar subjects
This should be given where serious writers are concerned. When you’re covering a new topic, it can be tempting to play fast and loose and write about things that sound like they make sense in the context of your subject. It could be easy to go down that path, but nothing could be worse for your reputation as a professional writer.
You might want to include some juicy, secondhand information about a newly revealed tech device or a brewing political scandal, but it’s really not worth putting to paper unless you can back it up with solid data. Even if you know you’re writing for a blog with a low readership and a limited reach, it’s not worth gambling your reputation just to make the writing process easier on yourself. If you’re on the wrong side of things (and you probably are if you’re relying on rumors as the basis for your material), you could ruin your reputation.

Additional reading: How to write an article online: a series of tutorials.

Offer a disclaimer
If you’re ever in doubt about the accuracy of your information or source material, offer a disclaimer to your readers. It’s as simple as that. As long as you’re honest about how much you know about the topic and where you got your information, there’s no way that anyone can fault you too much about your piece. Of course, a general disclaimer about your lack of knowledge doesn’t give you carte blanche to use any source you please, but it will provide helpful context for your readers. Often it takes the opinion and perspective of an outside observer to shed new light on a subject, and you might do just that should you take that new assignment.
So go on, explore new horizons in your writing. You’ll be a better writer for it.

Have you written about an unfamiliar subject recently? Do you have any additional tips for the writers who subscribe to this page? Share with us how you write about unfamiliar subjects and what this has done for your writing career. Also see our updated writing opportunities page here.

Maria Rainier is a devoted blogger who writes about topics concerning higher education and technology. She has her finger on the pulse of the online education industry, and she delights in writing about the benefits of online bachelor’s degrees in our digital society. Please share your comments with Maria below!

Anne's a published author, freelance writer and experienced editor. She's just signed her second publishing contract this year with 2 separate publishing houses. You can see her available books in the side panel on the right.


Icy BC July 24, 2012 at 1:29 PM  

When I get an assignment with unfamiliar subject, I read up first and find as much information as I can before attempting to write.

Anne Lyken-Garner July 25, 2012 at 5:07 PM  

I do this too. It's best to soak up all you can, so when you start writing it's all in your own words and thoughts.

Anne's a published author, freelance writer and experienced editor. She's just signed her second publishing contract this year with 2 separate publishing houses. You can hire her or see her available books in the side panel on the right.
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