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Should Writers Lack Knowledge of Their Subject?

June 17th, 2009 by Bob Bly

In an article in The Weekly Standard (5/18/09, p. 39), John Podhoretz puts forth an odd thesis: namely, that the less a writer knows about his topic, the better.

His article focuses on one specific type of writer, professional film critics, whom he says are a dying breed, as more and more newspapers lay off their film critics, and movie goers turn to film blogs instead of the newspaper for movie reviews.

“This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to film criticism,” Podhoretz writes, noting that to write moview reviews “requires nothing but an interesting sensibility.”

He goes on to say that an education in film-making is not only unnecessary for writing movie reviews but may actually be detrimental:

“The more self-consciously educated one is in the field — by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has — the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person.”

Funny, but I thought a “storehouse of knowledge” was a PREREQUISITE for writing intelligently on any subject, whether it’s Internet marketing, copywriting, popular science, or film.

But Podhoretz seems to argue that the less you know about the subject you write about, the better.

His reasoning: your reader also knows little, so your ignorance will enable you to write at the reader’s level of knowledge and interest.

When you write, do you strive to continually gain more knowledge of the subjects you write about? (That’s my approach.)

Or does Podhoretz’s notion of keeping the writer ignorant so he is the reader’s peer make some sort of sense to you?

(And I can see where it might; e.g., most scientists are notoriously bad popular science writers because they write for other scientists, not the general public.)

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 at 2:58 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 responses about “Should Writers Lack Knowledge of Their Subject?”

  1. mjmojo said:

    It seems to me that the consumer sector is turning more and more towards pure entertainment. Maybe my parents – who read newspapers – were interested in a film critic’s perspective, knowing he/she to be an authority in the area and wanting to glean some of that knowledge for themselves. My generation tends to prefer skipping the informational bit and moving straight to the entertainment. Never mind what style the film was done in, what other great films it compares to or what kind of narrative it follows – does it have things in it that I like?

    Maybe that’s not a fair generalization, but it seems to be Podhoretz’ assumption. I don’t like it, and if it is true, don’t think that writers should cater to it. With the exception of boring scientific white papers, how could well-informed writing be bad?

  2. Ernie Schell said:

    You’re 100% right, Bob. Yet the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. The dumbing down of the culture is far more pervasive than we would like to admit. If movies are the touchstone for Podhoretz’s arguments, just compare “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” that’s out now with the original. Sure, we should all be as knowledgeable as possible in what we are writing about, but we must also “assume nothing” when it comes to our readers’ perspective. We don’t share a common education anymore….

  3. Julie Tarr said:

    I tend to follow the same notion you do about learning as much about the subject before I write about it. I find that the old adage “write what you know” is sometimes hard to follow. I actually find it MORE difficult to write what I know; I don’t know where to start, what to cover, how best to cover it, etc. I’ve found over the years that I excel at writing about new-to-me topics that I am not a specialist in simply because it forces me to think through it logically, do the research, and then write something that makes sense.

    Thinking in terms of social media, particularly blogging, less knowledge can be a good thing for writers. Yes, I said it. But my reasoning is not the same as Podhoretz’s. Instead, when bloggers write about something they are not 100% familiar with, leaving a few loose ends or even asking questions can help to spark a discussion, which is one of the ideas behind social media.

    But regardless of the type of writing or media, you’ve got to gain a little bit of knowledge before you can write intelligibly about the topic…you just don’t have to be a specialist. 😉

  4. Scott Karambis said:

    It’s obviously a deliberatively provocative claim, so rather than simply say it’s stupid, I’d say it’s reductive. His point seems to be based on notion that we increasingly turn to peers foradvice on a wide range of subjects (from movies to surgery) rather than to so-called experts. But does that make amateur’s better? It probably makes them more accessible, but also generally more middle-brow and obvious. If you tend to like what everyone else like (blockbusters, best-sellers,etc) you’re probably in luck with the amateur. If you don’t or want to try something different or god forbid, learn something new, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

  5. Nicole said:

    I’ve been writing feature articles for a local magazine for 4 years, and in my experience the better articles have, indeed, been the ones I knew the least about going into it. I believe this is the case for several reasons:

    1. The less I know, the more curious I am, and the more questions I have. I’m not embarrassed to ask the really basic questions, because I go into the interview with no pretense of expertise about the subject.

    2. I think I write more objectively when I’m learning something new, rather than having an opinion or bias from the start.

    3. I’m writing to inform an audience that knows little to nothing about the topic; I’m a go-between the expert and the general public. I do the research and interpret the information for my readers. The less I know about the topic, the more I know what questions they are likely to want answered. When you have experience, it’s easy to forget what someone may not know about a subject.

    That being said, I do consider myself an expert in interviewing and research. While I may be a novice to the topic, I do have the expertise to get the information and write an informative and interesting article about it.

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  9. Ernie Schell said:

    Further thoughts on the subject —
    I recently consulted several doctors about a medical issue. One was my GP, and three others were highly trained specialists I know and trust completely. All of them had legitimate interest in the issue, but I got extremely different answers from all of them, and each answer reflected their training, perspective, and background. Applying this to writing about anything, who truly is “knowledgeable” about a topic? Philosophically, this is not a one-dimensional black-gray-white scale, but a rubic’s cube of colors. And to be frank, there are some writers I enjoy whom I want to read writing about anything, and some experts I can’t bear to read. In the end, a good writer is a good writer (allowing for your own taste in the matter, of course!).

  10. Ernie Schell said:

    One more thought on the subject –

    Have you ever read a wide-ranging piece that covers a number of related subjects, one of which (XYZ) you are very knowledgeable about, or know first-hand, and come away saying about the piece, “That was a really impressive job. Although on XYZ s/he was off-the-mark/wrong-headed/clueless, all-it-all it was great!” Of course, that should make you think twice about the rest of the piece, but how often does it? I think we just say “Everyone can’t know everything,” and leave it at that.

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  12. Joy Olson said:

    My take is that either extreme is not beneficial to your client. If you know nothing about your subject matter, what good are you to the reader? However, we all know “experts” who can bore others into oblivion with their obsessive, detailed knowledge of their preferred topic.

    That’s why the copywriter is so vital. I’ve always viewed myself as the translator between my client and my audience of readers. Neither one understands the other, and that’s where I come in. I hit the hot buttons that draw in the reader, while providing enough product facts to satisfy the client. It’s a delicate dance, but it works!

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