Remember when your teacher assigned your first research paper? Remember the stress of trying to choose your first topic?
In fact, the first one I remember was from seventh grade. I wrote a three or four-page paper about Pearl Harbor. By the end of that paper, I was ready to ignore American History for the rest of my life, because the paper had felt like so much work. I didn’t know a lot about history, and, according to the age old adage, I could have blamed my feelings about the paper on the fact that I knew very little about December 7th, 1941. I wrote about something I didn’t know.
But by eleventh grade, I was able to write a seven-page paper on nuclear energy—and my experience in nuclear energy was limited to a few paragraphs in my science books regarding the process and the controversy surrounding it. I loved writing this paper so much that I wanted to talk about nuclear energy for months afterwards.
So what changed? In both papers, I wrote about something I only knew a little about, which broke the ever-repeated rule to “Write what you know.” Here are two reasons my attitude changed for the second paper:
I’m a science major, and back in high school I knew I cared about science. I wanted to talk about an issue I knew my peers would feel strongly about, but show them the opposite side in a way that might just convince them to reconsider.
What’s important to note: I chose something I was not an expert on. I chose something on which I would have to do research before I could even defend my position as accurate.
I wrote what I didn’t know.
And that’s a little thing we like to call research. Which brings us to number 2…
I started off by exploring the topic, saving the links to articles that helped me formulate my opinion or had helpful information. When I found information in non-academic articles, I clicked on the original sources those articles cited, which lead me to a wealth of information. I organized my sources by topic—some sources explained nuclear energy, some supported my thesis, some supported the counterargument. I chose sources I knew might contradict my argument and looked for ways to understand the other side. All these methods helped me to actually enjoy writing my paper, because I was learning while I wrote.
So, the moral of the story is this: people will tell you to write what you know, but, when you stick to what you already know, writing gets boring. Writing about what you don’t know is only a problem if your heart isn’t in the project and you research poorly. If you are passionate or curious about something, choose that topic—you’ll enjoy it so much more. When you research something, look at the different opinions. Research to learn, and research in a way that’s organized.