Richard Panek

Five Things I've Learned About

Writing What You Don’t Know

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View the archive of this two-hour class from best-selling writer and teacher Richard Panek, and discover the Five Things He’s Learned about the spirit of discovery and exploration – and the process by which great writing begins with something new and unknown.

Online Event Details

  • 120 minutes


  • Single-Class Ticket. - $60.00

View the archive of my two-hour class and discover the Five Things I’ve Learned about the spirit of discovery and exploration – and the process by which great writing begins with something new and unknown.

Write what you know is one of those evergreen pieces of writing advice—and with good reason. Evidence of a lack of expertise can call your qualifications into question and drag your reputation into a pit of disrepute. Yet I have made a career out of assigning myself the opposite task: Write what you don’t know.

Nearly thirty years ago, an editor approached me with a proposition: Would I like to ghostwrite the memoirs of the then-governor of New York, George Pataki? I think I stretched the telephone cord (those were the days!) to arm’s length while giving the receiver a look of horror. As much as my young, aspirational self wanted to secure a book contract, this project “felt,” I seem to remember telling the editor, “like death.”

A few weeks later she called again: Maybe I would want to write a history of the telescope? Same cord-stretch, same look of horror, same resistance to premature mortality. No offense, I added, but I hate science. In high school, I had taken as many AP math courses as possible specifically so that, in college, I could take as few science courses as possible (a strategy that pretty much worked).

“Spend a month researching the topic,” the editor advised. “And think of the book as an essay.” I did, and I did. And I saw that researching the history and philosophy of science would be like going back to college, only without the student loans. So I wrote the book (Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens), and I haven’t looked back.

The lessons I learned from accepting that challenge have defined my career and changed my life, and they are the lessons I invite you to explore with me, whether you’re a writer or someone who just wants to experience a more inquisitive way of approaching the world.

In this two-hour class, Five Things I’ve Learned about Writing What You Don’t Know, I’ll use my evolution as a writer, as well as someone who engages with the world in what I hope is a thoughtful manner, to help guide your own evolution, whether as writer or thoughtful engager. We’ll read some brief excerpts from Galileo, Einstein, and other scientists that influenced my methodology in taking seemingly formidable topics and rendering them accessible to both myself and prospective readers. First I found that adopting the perspective of the scientists would allow me to demystify the scientific discovery process: It was a human endeavor for them; why should it be any different for us? I then used my own discovery process as the model to guide my role as storyteller: By standing shoulder to shoulder with the scientists, then inviting the reader to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, I have tried not only to demystify esoteric concepts but to make the discovery process a collective adventure.

Finally, the class will focus on Einstein’s special theory of relativity. I had to teach it to myself when writing a book about Einstein (The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes), and now I’ll use that experience to show how you can teach yourself…just about anything. By the end of the class, you will understand special relativity, one of the most counterintuitive and revolutionary concepts in the history and philosophy of science. What took me two weeks will take you two minutes. (We’ll then explore general relativity, because why not?)

Due to the circumstances of my life, my own area of “expertise” as a writer has been science, but the lessons above apply to any subject. Yes, I write what I don’t know, but in the end I always ask myself the question you will also learn to ask yourself about any subject: Have you now explained a topic, whether to the reader or to yourself, in such a way that you would have understood it before you started your own adventure into the unknown?

If the answer is yes, then maybe what you’e writing is what you do know.

-Richard Panek

Richard Panek

Richard Panek is most recently the author of The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet. His previous books include The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which received the 2012 Science Communication Award from the American Institute of Physics. Among his numerous other honors: a Guggenheim fellowship in Science Writing, an Antarctic Artists and Writers grant from the National Science Foundation, and a fellowship in Literary Nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His collaboration with Temple Grandin, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, was a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. Richard’s own books have been translated into sixteen languages.

His essays and features have appeared in the New York TimesDiscover, EsquireNatural History (including a monthly column), NatureScientific AmericanSmithsonian, and the Washington Post. Richard is a longtime faculty member in the Goddard College MFA Writing Program as well as at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a course he developed at the invitation of the Writing Seminars, “Science and Storytelling.”

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