021 The Two Kinds of Knowledge Every Writer Needs

So far I’ve asked “Do you have the right strategy? Do you have the right technique?” Today’s question is … Do you have the right knowledge?

American theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.”

I can’t think of a better way to nurture originality than that.

Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English Writer, said, “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

But you say you want something more systematic. You want a framework. So how do you build this knowledge? Well, let me give you few approaches. I recommend them all.

In this 12-minute episode you’ll discover:

  • The two basic kinds of knowledge (and which one is better)
  • How to build a wicked vocabulary
  • What it means to be an anti scholar
  • One of Jeff Goins favorite ways to learn
  • How to get a free education from Yale
  • The SEO podcast you should be listening to

The Show Notes

The Two Kinds of Knowledge Every Writer Needs

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, a digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform.

Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Demian Farnworth: Hi, welcome to Rough Draft, your daily dose of essential web writing advice. I’m your host, Demian Farnworth, the Chief Content Writer for Copyblogger Media.

And thank you for sharing the next few minutes of your life with me.

So this is Episode 21. It’s part of the The Exceptional Writers Club mini series where I’ve been asking important questions about becoming a great writer.

In the past two episodes I asked, do you have the right strategy? and yesterday I asked do you have the right technique?

Today’s question is … Do you have the right knowledge?

So this is probably a good time to point out that we are taking a long detour away from how to write a blog post — sort of the essential ingredients of a great article — something I promised we would do back in episode sixteen — where I got distracted because if you remember I shared with you one of my favorite openings — the Jack White “You have to fight the guitar and win” opening” — the one where he was sitting in a dusty, sunlit house with his younger self — and it was from that article, and it was called “How to Become an Exceptional Writer” where I explore the four categories — the four questions — that make up an exceptional web writer.

Now, this detour — it’s a very southern thing to do I must add. I was born in Alabama. I have a hard time telling a story extemporaneously — and NOT going down rabbit trails. There are just so many beautiful things I want to look at.

Mom. Check out that rainbow.

But this is all very important stuff we are talking about … for your development as an exceptional web writer.

So we will eventually get back to exploring those essential elements of a great article. Today, though, we are going to talk about having the right kind of knowledge.

The Two Basic Kinds of Knowledge (and Which One Is Better)

There are two basic kinds of knowledge that you need: there is the general and there is the specific.

Think about general knowledge as being three miles wide and three inches deep. And think about specific knowledge as three inches wide and 3 miles deep.

Drilling down, in other words.

For example, as a professional web writer my specific knowledge plunges into the depths of topics like writing, and persuasion, and content marketing, and advertising, and negotiations, and SEO and social media.

That’s very specific knowledge. It’s knowledge I need to master if I ever want to be considered an authority as an online writer. It takes years.

Now, my general knowledge ranges from mountaineering to morality — from Christianity to chess. I enjoy reading about gravity, the Civil War, dying, Theodore Roosevelt, the Spanish Flu, and libertarianism.

I enjoy watching films about historical events and current events and famous football players. Recently I just listened to the 12-episode podcast Serial. I read two books about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I’m reading David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.”

There is no end to my curiosity. And all of it feeds the beast. Feeds that renegade sinkhole.

American theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.”

I can’t think of a better way to nurture originality than that.

How to Build a Wicked Vocabulary

Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English Writer, said, “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

But so say you want something more systematic. You want a framework. So how do you build this knowledge — this general, this specific knowledge? Well, let me give you few approaches. I recommend them all.

Because your words are your currency build a wicked vocabulary — Read the dictionary, read old books, and ancient speeches. Read the King James Bible. Pick up on the original language. Look up words you don’t understand.

What It Means to Be an Anti Scholar

Two, become an anti scholar. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, coined the term “anti scholar.”

What is an anti scholar? It refers to the person who focuses on the books he or she has NOT read. It’s not so much how much you know, but how much you don’t know — and how to find out that information when you need it.

There is an anecdote about Ben Johnson, the English poet and playwright, about one hundred years before Samuel Johnson, and no relation, that demonstrates what this mindset is like.

It is told that while scanning the book spines of a friend’s library, Ben stopped on a particular book, slid it out gently and peered at it. His friend asked if he had read the book. Ben Johnson looked up and said, “No.” but knowing where to find it is just as important as having read it.”

In his book, Taleb writes, “The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and not dull.

He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool.

Taleb said, “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

Now, my friend and fellow copywriter Katherine Wildman introduced me to a Japanese term that describes this … behavior: Tsudoku: Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.

Thank you, Katherine.

Having a library near by helps, too. I have two small libraries near by. But they belong to a statewide system. Living near a university or two helps. Of course you can find most information online.

Now let’s move from what you don’t know to mastering a very small, but very precise piece of information. And we do this by memorization.

Recall in writing is critical. I have a pretty good memory. Not photographic, but I can remember important memories in detail.

However, I try to memorize chunks of text, handwrite a compelling page or listen repeatedly to a line in a speech. I want it for recall. I want to burn it into my memory. But I also want to impress the cadence, the peculiar vocabulary, and the style into my mind.

This knowledge will help develop your flair, which we will talk more about in the next episode. In the meantime, pick your favorite writers, and then start memorizing lines.

One of Jeff Goins Favorite Ways to Learn

Reading is not the only mode of learning. Of acquiring general knowledge. Travel — Actually going through experiences, meeting new people and seeing different parts of the world will build your knowledge base. It’s what Jeff Goins calls the discipline of travel. And it’s an excellent educator.

You could also sit in a classroom — These days this doesn’t mean you have to enroll in school, load your backpack with paper and pencils and roll up to the community college on your bicycle.

How to Get a Free Education From Yale

Most major universities are giving away courses online for free. Places like MIT, Yale or Stanford. Just look up your favorite university and I’ll bet you they are giving away courses.

Right now I’m listening to Shelly Kagan’s course on Death.

The SEO Podcast You Should Be Listening To

Finally follow blogs and listen to podcasts about your field. Download their white papers and ebooks. On our Rainmaker podcast we have a number of shows I’ve made a point of listening to just so I can keep up with the current changes.

A podcast like Search and Deploy by Loren Baker, where he’s tackling issues as they emerge with experts in the field, keeps me on the cutting edge of SEO.

And like technique, the ways you absorb knowledge are only limited by your imagination. What methods do you use to build your specific and general knowledge?

And speaking of knowledge, let me close with this.

You can get a great scoop of specific knowledge at our Authority Rainmaker conference this May 13-15, where a star-studded cast of speakers will bringing you some of the best ideas on content marketing, SEO, driving traffic, smart design, and conversion… and how to just generally subdue the web, kick tail, and take names.

Ideas from people like the SEO veteran, Danny Sullivan, co-founder and CTO of ion interactive Scott Brinker, Porch’s VP of Marketing Joanna Lorde, author and the world’s first Chief Content Officer, Ann Handley.

Don’t forget Henry Rollins, Dan Pink, Chris Brogan and a cast of Copyblogger hot shots. All in one room. For three days. At the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

And you’ve got a chance to chum with them. Dine with them.

Beautiful knowledge, from beautiful people, in a beautiful building.

You don’t want to miss it. But you can only do that if you register at rainmaker.fm/event. That’s rainmaker.fm/event.

Until next time. Take care.