Write What You Know

It’s the ‘catch phrase’ of writing advice given to beginning writers: Write what you know. Pick something you know lots about or can do really well and then write about it – the idea being that your work will be rich with information and realism and, if you’re any good at the  writing part, entertaining.

Cliche advice for writers, perhaps. It’s everywhere – and in every writing course I’ve ever attended it’s been presented as something of a golden rule, said with reverence and received with awe. In fact, a lot of advice for writers is becoming cliche – many guidebooks for writers regurgitate the same information, the same tips and hints with similar emphasis on creative exercises and character development and whatever else. It makes me wonder if there is room for “another writing blog” in cyberspace when there are so many aspiring writers who, like me, have chosen to share their knowledge, ideas, and experiences alongside those shared by real writers. Do we hope to show off our skills and abilities and prove ourselves?  Or are we drawn to one another not to discover something profound but to simply know we’re not alone? Perhaps it is because writing is what we know and so we do just that – we write what we know.

Lately, however, I’m not sure of what I know. I’ve been reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses, not as a writer but as a person. I guess that I divide the two is indicative of how frustrated I am in my subjectivity! Recently I’ve been wondering what it is, exactly, that I know. I’ve written lists of my qualifications and skills, scribbled brainstorms of what I love and what I hate, and stared vacantly into space trying to figure out my place in the grand scheme of things. I missed the  “self discovery” part in my adolescence so I guess I have to do it now.

Maybe working out ‘life’ is like writing a novel. Writing what you know doesn’t mean you should only write about things you’re good at or experiences you’ve had – if that were the  case, would anyone want to read about a cake baking bra fitter? … Alright, whipped cream and breasts aren’t the best example … But that’s not the future I envision for myself, nor is it the topic I would plan for my novel.

The point is, I don’t think Tolkien ever met a hobbit, but gee, could have fooled me! Writing what you know is simply a statement designed to encourage you to research, to be clear and informative in your writing so that your reader believes the narrative because it’s well-researched and thus believable. Some excellent examples of using research to enhance narrative are The  Crowthistle Chronicles by Cecilia Dart Thornton (fantasy) andWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen (realism). Writing a novel is not about what I know but about what I want my characters to know and thus what I must research and learn.

So where does this leave me? I need to focus less on what I know and more on what I want to know. That will be a good start. And from there? Well, my novels never end up as I planned …

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2 comments on “Write What You Know

  1. During my writing course last year we were given a short exercise where first you had to write a paragraph on something you knew a lot about, and secondly to write a paragraph on something you’d like to know more about. The idea was to show us that we have infinite reserves of resource material for writing fiction. There is what you know; what you come to know; what you want to know; and whatever you can make up, with these categories constantly criss-crossing one another as you write.

    The teacher wrote “You already have reams of material within you. But there is no need to limit yourself to those reams. Outside, reams and reams and reams more exist. And then there are the reams that you create, that you bring into existence through your own writing process. You use knowledge in creating fiction, but did you also realise that you can use fiction in creating knowledge?”

    This has stuck with me since that first class and I think it’s so true.

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