writing-notebook

Top 7 Tips for Writing About an Unfamiliar Topic

Writing content about a topic you know inside and out can be challenging enough, so how do you write about something if you know absolutely nothing about the topic? Spoiler alert: You can’t.

That’s why we’ve compiled a handy-dandy list of tips and tricks for learning everything you need to sound like you know more than you actually do.

Table of Contents

  1. Pick a structure
  2. Read (a lot)
  3. Learn the lingo
  4. Phone a friend
  5. Find your story
  6. Just start writing
  7. Clean it up

Here’s the challenge

As copywriters, we’re constantly introduced to new clients, industries, products, and concepts. More often than not, we’re then asked to crank out a blog, whip up a web page, or pump out a brochure within a day or two (sometimes even faster), whether we understand the topic or not.

To add to that challenge, we’re almost always writing as if we’re the client, and they’re obviously experts in their fields. That means our writing needs to sound like it came from the mind of an expert (which it almost certainly didn’t).

 

So, how do you do that?

Well, first off, don’t panic. While it might sound like a tall order, it’s by no means impossible. If you think about everything you’ve ever written, at some earlier point, you knew nothing about those topics, too. You had to learn about them before you could write about them.

The difference here is the ticking clock. As a copywriter, you only have so long to finish each project in order to meet deadlines and stay within budget. That means you’re going to have to be strategic. Decide how much time you’ll need to spend learning and how much time you’ll need to actually write the thing.

Remember: The name of the game here is to sound like an expert, not become one. You only need to know just enough to write the content for your project. You’re not crafting a thesis.

 

Let’s get into the tips

It’s worth pointing out that the list below is by no means exhaustive, but these tips should give you an idea about how to approach an unfamiliar topic when time is of the essence. One of the biggest hurdles in any writing project is the overwhelming nature of the thing itself. We’ve all asked ourselves, “Where do I even begin?” This checklist can help. So, let’s get started!

 

1. Pick a structure

This might seem like an odd first step, but it’s an important one. What you’re planning to write should inform how you conduct your research. For instance, if you’re writing a high-level overview about a topic, you don’t need to spend your time wading through analytics and complex research.

In the same way, if you’re writing a top 10 list, long-form content may or may not be helpful to you. Or, if you’re writing a video script, it might be more beneficial to spend time watching videos rather than reading.

As a copywriter, the format for your piece is usually decided before you’ve even heard about the project. If it isn’t, pick a format that makes the most sense. You might choose something like:

  • A top 10 blog
  • A how-to guide
  • A video
  • A brochure
  • A white paper
  • A web page
  • Or literally a million other things

If you’re not sure which format to choose, you can try hopping around the internet to see how others are writing about the topic. If all you find are how-to articles, that might be a good place to start.

 

2. Read (a lot)

If you’re surprised by this step, shame on you. Reading is how we learn! And while you’re most likely not writing a super technical piece, you still need a foundation of working knowledge before you can start clacking away on your keyboard.

Building base-level knowledge about your topic is almost always going to be your first or second step. Without it, you won’t be able to glean any useful information from more nuanced or technical resources, and you certainly won’t be able to draw any new conclusions. Don’t rush this part.

In general, you’ll probably spend about half of your project time researching and the other half actually writing. The more you read, the easier it will be to crank out the words later.

Start by hopping on your favorite search engine. Find a variety of resources in different formats that talk about your topic. These could be videos, articles, educational resources, webpages, etc.

Be sure to use a variety of search terms around your topic and look for a solid mix of short- and long-form content. The goal here is to cover your bases and soak up as much information as you can as quickly as you can. Variety will keep it interesting and present multiple viewpoints on the same topic, and that’ll be helpful later.

Here are a few more quick tips to help you save time while researching:

  • Don’t waste time reading articles that are saying the exact same thing. If you feel like you’ve already read something, skip it.
  • Save the technical stuff for last. Don’t spend an hour trying to decipher what might as well be an alien language. Come back to it once you’re more familiar with the topic.
  • Create a list of your resources. Group similar articles together for reference later. Oh, and if something really jumps out at you, go ahead and pull the quote or data. That way, you won’t have to hunt for it later.

 

3. Learn the lingo

This is a quick tip, but it can save you loads of headaches as you’re researching. It can also go a long way toward making it seem like you know this topic inside and out.

When you see a term you don’t recognize, look it up right then and there. Chances are you’ll see it again during your research, so go ahead and familiarize yourself with all the jargon and terminology you can.

Depending on the content you’re writing, you may or may not use any of this industry-specific language in your piece. That said, it’s important to know the lingo so that you can simplify it for your particular audience.

If you’re researching a particularly dense topic, it can be helpful to have a separate browser window open with tabs for each of the terms you need to remember. You can also make a reference sheet for yourself if that’s more helpful.

 

4. Phone a friend

One of the fastest and most effective ways to learn about a topic is by talking to someone who knows more than you do. If you have a friend, relative, colleague, or even client that’s an expert on your topic, see if you can set up a meeting with them.

Now that you’ve spent time reading and building up your foundational knowledge, you should be able to create a list of questions to learn even more. The best part is, unlike an online resource, you can ask the person to explain further, dumb things down, or just explain things in a different way to help you understand.

If you can, try to record the call. Whether it’s ten minutes or an hour, having a recording can be a lifesaver when it comes to getting the details right. Oh, and if the person is a qualified expert on the topic, be sure to ask if you can quote them directly. This can help differentiate your content from other pieces and build trust with your readers.

 

5. Find your story

Now that you’ve done the basic research, it’s time to figure out what you’re trying to say. Chances are you stumbled across a few points or ideas during your research 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.

The key thing to remember here is that you’re not simply regurgitating someone else’s ideas. You’re learning from other writers, creators, or experts in order to form your own thoughts. 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 the content 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. Remember: You should only ever be adding to the conversation, never repeating it.

 

6. Just start writing

Now that you’ve built up your foundational knowledge, identified a handful of resources to back up your claims, and reached an interesting (and hopefully unique) conclusion, it’s time to start typing.

Keep in mind: Your first draft is probably going to stink. That’s okay. They always do.

Just get your ideas down on paper. You have all the tools you need to start stringing thoughts, facts, and ideas together. Don’t worry too much about the flow of information or the style. You’ll come back and fix it later. Just get the general structure down and put supporting research or facts where they make sense.

Once you’ve finished, go back and compare your content to the inspirational pieces and resources you pulled to help you get here. Is your content a little too similar to another piece? Does it include all of the necessary explanations and context your readers might need to understand the topic? Would this be the kind of article you would have used to help yourself write about this topic?

These kinds of questions can help you look at your own work a little more objectively and identify areas you might need to rethink. Be sure to play around with the information hierarchy and ensure that each section logically leads to the next.

 

7. Clean it up

With your first draft finished, it’s time to make your content sound like it was written by an industry expert, and that means focusing on brevity, clarity, and authenticity.

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.

Here are a few tips for adding extra polish to your work:

  • Remove unnecessary filler wherever possible.
  • Cite any source you’ve used. If you’re writing a blog, link to noncompetitive articles that users might find valuable.
  • If you can tighten up a sentence by using industry terminology, give it a shot. See how it affects the flow of content and decide which version your readers might prefer.
  • Compare your piece to the best articles and sources you used for research. Does your work have the same punch? If not, ask yourself why.
  • Try to pinpoint the weakest areas of your piece and give them some extra attention. It could be that you need more data to back up a claim, or it could be that the language itself simply isn’t convincing.
  • Make sure you’re abiding by any brand standards or messaging guidelines that need to be considered.

As a bonus, try to find one or two actual experts to review your piece. There may be things that you’ve left out without realizing it, or perhaps you’ve even used a term incorrectly. Someone familiar with your topic can help you iron out these details before preparing to send the piece to the client or publish it.

 

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 how 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 moral of the story here is that writing about unfamiliar topics is more than “faking it until you make it.” That’s certainly part of it, but a much bigger portion is learning how to identify the building blocks of information you need to write accurate content in a compelling way without really knowing the topic inside and out.

Just remember, writing about unfamiliar topics is a skill. The more you practice, the faster you’ll become at picking up on the common language and key similarities between your resources. With plenty of practice and this checklist in hand, you should be able to spend less time reading and more time pretending to be an expert.

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