Ultimate worldbuilding for writers – specialising in being general

It has always been a source of frustration to me, as a writer, that critics assume the only thing I know how to write about is whatever my last book was on. I’ve found, time and again, that if I write on something else, the first response by those who regard the new subject as their own personal possession is to deny my expertise in it.

It happened just a few weeks ago, in fact, though the critic should have known better as the topic was the very one I am formally trained in. I love irony. But the fact is that writers have to have a broad knowledge of a lot of subjects anyway.

That’s partly because one of the keys to longevity in this field is versatility.

But a broad knowledge is essential even when writing on a single subject. The world you’re building with your words – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever – has to become real. Only then can you capture the reader and take them on the emotional journey which lies at the heart of all writing. All? All. Including non-fiction? Sure, but I’ll explore that in another post.

The real world is complex, deep, multi-faceted and huge; and to make a real setting for novel or any other writing, the author’s words have to contain more detail than just up-front subject matter, to give it the proper ring of authenticity. Which, in turn, means a lot of research into quite disparate things.

To me, that is ultimately what ‘worldbuilding’ means for authors. Writers who don’t have a wide knowledge in, over and around their main topic risk undermining their stories. Imagine an author writing on (say) an imaginary conspriacy to hide the Holy Grail. They brief themselves on the latest pop-alternate version of the Grail story. But they also have to research their story’s setting, otherwise they risk conflating different Paris railway stations which in reality are about 3 km apart, or having their characters drive down routes that are undriveable.

OK, yes, you know who I’m getting at, and yes, that author did end up richer than Croesus. But hey – look at the people lining up to point out the Research 101 epic fails. And the basic Writing 101 fails.

The onus, in short, is on the writer to be as well informed as possible, and about much more than the up-front topic.

But it goes further than that. Writing – by nature – demands many skills, ranging from knowing how to put the words together to the detaiils of story structure to understanding the necessary technologies to the publishing process to marketing. It brings together a lot of unrelated fields and the author, like it or not, ends up having to deal with all of them. That’s especially so in these self-publishing days where the author is also the producer.

The resulting skill set is astonishingly broad, which might make the author a ‘generalist’. But I think that under-rates writers.  To me, ‘generalism’ is a specialty of its own, not least because the ‘generalist’ has to be a specialist in more than one topic. Isaac Asimov once explained that generalists see connections between fields that narrow specialists cannot. I agree.

It’s not a daunting prospect because writers who make a career of their calling find that all of this happens of itself, as they pursue opportunities. The word to describe this phenomenon, which I rather like, is polymath. And, as I say, writers usually end up so by default. It’s the nature of writing.

What do you figure? I’d love to hear from you about this one.

Oh – and quick pop quiz. Whose tagline from the 1990s was ‘I have many skills’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

11 thoughts on “Ultimate worldbuilding for writers – specialising in being general

    1. Those are hilarious! Must confess, it’s over a decade or more since I saw an episode of it. I remembered the line, but I’d forgotten just how profoundly cheesy that show was. Plus side was that it created work for our actors – mostly the Theatre Corporate crowd, as far as I could tell – and helped build the skill base among production crews that Jackson used to make The Lord of the Rings. I see Lawless has been in the news this week (again) over boarding that ship in New Plymouth.


  1. With a son who loved to watch it. Xena, it was the Warrior princess who said “I have many skills”

    I have to agree with your post and wish to add that it’s not just good writers who become ‘Polymath’ (s) I often explain to others in my occupation (Forensic investigator) when asked why I have so many interests, read so much, and, practice so many varied skills, “Knowledge is not useful if it is not applied” In my job possessing that wider general knowledge, as well as the specific skills I have learnt over the years, have assisted many other investigators into solving their investigations particularly when they cannot see the links due to their narrow fields of interest. I love investigating scenes and discovering something ‘out of place’ (which is usually the crucial clue) due to having a knowledge that encompasses so many interests. I have come to believe that all of the experiences in my life and my love for greater knowledge of so many subjects, most unconnected to each other, led to my current line of work and expertise and the satisfaction of helping so many others. I am often called ‘a renaissance man’ I think Polymath would be more accurate.


  2. To me ‘polymath’ and ‘renaissance man’ are terms for the same thing. I think part of the problem we have with people who are good at wide ranges of things is that our systems of knowledge are compartmentalised; and the nature of both the western world view, and the education system derived from it, emphasises that compartmentalisation. People are not ‘supposed’ to be good at more than one thing – and if they are, we look for the faults.

    I think that’s a philosophical failure of the west in particular; the real world of knowledge, understanding and so forth, in truth, is a single whole. Sure, it has to be tackled somehow – and breaking it down into compartments is one way to do that. But on the other, that same breaking down also tends to mask the inter-relationships between the different parts of the wider world.


  3. Matthew, spot on! Specialization doesn’t only result in a blinkered world-view, it’s just plain BORING.

    My ex quit playing Trivial Pursuit with me — she accused me of reading the cards (however many hundreds of them!) in the loo ahead of time.

    Besides, if you want to understand the human race, how broad must one’s knowledge base be?


    1. Thank you – I absolutely agree! And yes, when it comes to understanding human constructs, definitely the more we can find out, the better off we’ll be.


  4. Reblogged this on tomburkhalter and commented:
    Matthew Wright has some good ideas here about the necessary knowledge base of a writer. Knowing a little bit about everything is an ideal we may aspire to, even if we never reach it. I never pass by a bit of trivia … you never know when it may prove not only useful but vital!


  5. The knowledge of professional writers amazes me. They say blithely, ”I’m just going to research so-and-so for my next book” and end up experts after a few weeks.


  6. I agree, my first fiction book was a bit of an epic, the vast majority of the time it took to write was research. I learned a lot, and was glad of it, but if I’d known that at the start I might not have begun. 🙂


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