Top 4 Tips for Writing About an Unfamiliar Topic

Writing content about the things we know inside and out can be challenging enough. Just ask anyone who’s ever drafted an email, created a presentation, or written a research paper.

Words are hard.

There’s an even bigger challenge that copywriters the world over are given on a regular basis, though. As writers, we’re routinely introduced to new clients, industries, lines of business, or products that we know little to nothing about, and then we’re asked to write about them. To add to the challenge, the content we create must sound as if it came from the mind of an expert.

If it sounds tough, it’s because it is.

The good news is, it’s not impossible — not by a long shot. After all, if you think about everything you’ve ever written about, at some earlier point, you knew nothing about it, too. Remember, the challenge isn’t to become an expert on the thing you’re covering. The challenge is to, in a limited amount of time, become just familiar enough with the topic to sound like an expert.

So, how do you do that?

While the following instructions are by no means exhaustive, they should help to give your project structure. One of the biggest hurdles of writing about the unknown is the overwhelming nature of the thing. We’ve all asked ourselves, “Where do I even begin?” By following these steps, you’ll leave every project briefing with a general idea of where to get started.

1. Read… a Lot

If you’re surprised by this first step, shame on you. This is how we learn, and while you’re not going to be writing a thesis on the thing you’re marketing, you need to form a foundation of working knowledge to build from.

You’ll likely spend about half of your total project time just learning, so don’t try to rush it. The writing portion of these types of projects becomes significantly easier and faster once you’ve developed the proper foundational knowledge.

Head on over to Google and search for whatever your topic is. Be sure to use a variety of different search terms to widen the types of content you’ll find, and try to discover a solid mix of short and longform articles. This will help ensure that you find a few pieces that give an overview of the topic and a few that dive a little deeper.

You don’t want to waste time digging into hyper-technical pieces, but after one or two overview articles, you won’t want to waste time reading any more of those, either. Using a variety of search terms will help you find just the right blend.

Chances are, you’ll run into a lot of terms you don’t understand. When that happens, look them up before continuing. While you’ll likely try to avoid too much jargon in the materials you write, you’ll need to understand these terms in order to then simplify them for your audience.

2. Make Connections

If you’re usually a diligent note taker, those skills are really going to come in handy for this step. Now that you’ve done a bit of light reading on your topic, it’s time to start taking notes on the most common points that the articles you read make.

Find the language that’s often repeated, jot down any prominent vocabulary terms, and figure out what the consensus is between the sources you’ve used. Chances are, they’re all saying something similar.

Once you’ve identified the verbiage, the main points, and the consistent conclusions that are made about this topic, you’ve got the building blocks for writing your own piece. With just a few hours of reading and note taking, you’ve gone from knowing nothing about the topic to understanding most or all the basics, and now you’ve got the skeleton needed to frame your writing.

3. Put Some Meat on the Bones

Now that you’ve done the basic research, it’s time to figure out what you’re trying to say. Chances are that during your reading, there were a few points or ideas that jumped out at you as particularly interesting. Now’s your chance to dive a little deeper into those areas, whether that’s by researching them independently or simply drawing logical conclusions to expound upon them.

This is where your skill as a writer really comes into play. Look at the points that are laid out. Decide which pieces are truly the most important or interesting, and then determine what the conclusion of those points becomes.

The key thing to remember here is that you’re not simply regurgitating someone else’s ideas. You’re learning from other writers in order to form your own thoughts, even if the conclusion that those thoughts leads to has already been well-established. Try to find new, more interesting, or more succinct ways to present the most common information.

Was there anything that you read that felt out of place? Unimportant? Tossed in among the other facts? Remove those things and create a more streamlined version of those areas that provides greater benefits to the reader.

If you ever find yourself writing something that is eerily similar to something you’ve already read, you might not have given it enough thought. You should only ever be adding to the conversation, never repeating it.

4. Clean It Up

True experts speak with confidence, and when it comes to writing, that means brevity. Look back at the piece that you’ve written and ensure that each word is purposeful and driving home a point.

Though you’re truly only an amateur on the topic, your job is to craft language that doesn’t waver. Remove unnecessary filler wherever possible, be sure to cite any sources that you’ve used (when applicable), and ensure that you’re abiding by any brand standards or messaging guidelines that need to be considered.

The final step is to attempt to find someone who is familiar with the topic you’re writing about and let them give it a read. There may be things that you’ve left out without realizing it, or perhaps you’ve even used a term incorrectly. Someone who is familiar with your topic can help you iron out these details before preparing to send the piece to the client or publish it.

And then, at last, ta-da. You’ve done it.

The true challenge in these types of exercises is the time crunch. While this process is very similar to the way we research and write about any topic, the key difference here is that we’re not afforded the kind of ample research time that we might normally give ourselves. The more often you follow this process, the faster you will become at picking up on the common language and key similarities between articles, and that means you’ll be able to spend less time reading and more time writing as you move forward.

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