Know Your Sh—, uh, Stuff

By JAMES R. RIFFEL

I am an unapologetic generalist. I know some about a lot of things. It is typical that in the same day at work, I can end up writing articles about an election campaign, a local government struggling with budget woes, a new health care discovery, and a local singer’s success. Another day, it could be a major announcement in sports, an audit of a public agency, a real estate sales summary for the region, and a Navy ship deploying into harm’s way.

The one common thread in all of these stories is that the writer needs to have some background on what is going on in the world and have a basic understanding of how things work. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is for a reader to sense a lack of credibility. If you try to write about a court case, and you don’t know what follows a preliminary hearing, compared to what comes after a trial, you will look bad.

That’s what you want to avoid. It is true that in Science Fiction and Fantasy, you can create your own worlds. You can make everything how you want. The reader, though, has certain conventions in his life that you can only stretch so far, so you have to be careful. Most other genres, of course, tighten the bounds of realism.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a newspaper article or a full-length novel, you have to know how long someone whose been arrested has until he makes his first court appearance, or that politicians might hold certain offices for a maximum of two terms in one state, but an unlimited time in another. Insert countless etceteras here.

I’ll close with a real-life situation. I used to hold a management position at a small-market AM radio station back when such places actually had more than a few employees. Our sports director was an older gentleman who unfortunately passed on, and we had a young guy on staff who loved sports, had previously worked for an NBA franchise and wanted to succeed him. I told him he could handle more sports reporting responsibilities and we’d see how it goes.

One day, not long after, this graduate of one of our more prestigious universities came to me while he was writing a sports update and urgently asked me how many divisions there were in the NBA. After staring at him in a perplexed manner for a moment, I informed him there were four. Mind you, I much prefer the college game and don’t follow the NBA. Some things you just kind of pick up along the way. He didn’t. He was never made sports director and departed a couple of weeks after he figured that out.

Now, it is not imperative that you personally know how many divisions exist in the major professional basketball league, but if you like sports and worked for a pro team, well,…

Bottom line is, know your stuff. If you embark on a topic in which you’re unfamiliar, research first. Extensively. Don’t let your readers doubt your credibility. Best of all, don’t live your life in a cave. Read newspapers and magazines, (watch several channels of television news), Discovery Channel and, yes, if it will give a boost to your writing career, even a little ESPN.

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About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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