Nov. 27, 2018

“Write what you know.” ~Mark Twain

As a beginning writer, I took Mark

Twain's advice to heart. As a

seasoned writer, I reject it.

My earliest memories of being a

writer stem from 7 years old. I

confess I didn’t know much at 7

years old. I’m now on the cusp of

collecting Medicare. I confess I

don’t know much on the cusp of

collecting Medicare.

I write about topics I know little

about but spark my curiosity. I

research and write up my research.

I become stuck and research some more.

Now it’s true I write much on writing and public speaking—topics I know something about. But I tend to write about aspects of the craft I don’t know and that strike me as interesting. After nearly 60 years of calling myself a writer and more than 35 years of being paid to do it, there is still much to intrigue me.

I’m on a Noah Webster kick right now. For the uninitiated, Noah Webster is the father of the American dictionary. After reading two biographies written nearly two centuries after he died and one written by his granddaughter, I’m now researching his original writings.

Webster was a complicated and accomplished man. In addition to being the father of the American dictionary, he is the father of the U.S. copyright system. At least one biographer credits his essays on the U.S. Constitution as more influential than The Federalist Papers for the Constitution’s adoption. He founded the first daily newspaper in New York City. He and Ben Franklin conspired to make American English phonetic (something they obviously failed to do).

He also alternated between an inferiority complex that often left him isolated and depressed, and a haughtiness that would make President Trump proud. For example, upon arriving in Philadelphia, physician Benjamin Rush—a civic leader and a Declaration of Independence signatory—welcomed Webster to his city. “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion,” Webster replied.

My initial study into Webster stemmed from wanting to know what motivated him to write the great American dictionary. In doing so, I’m learning much more about the Revolutionary period of American history and the interactions and complicated relationships among Webster and his contemporaries—Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and a host of others—all of which may turn up in future writings and speeches.

I also am enthralled by the thought of a phonetic English. It has pushed me to study lexicology, the deep study of words. I’ve always been interested in etymology—the origin of words. This broadens that interest.

All of which returns us to my original point posited at the top of this piece: that the real fun in writing is writing about what you don’t know. It leads you to a road of discovery and a lifetime of learning.


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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at​​

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Write What You (Don’t) Know

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