Should You Only Write What You Know?


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“Write What You Know”

One of many ‘rules’ of writing. As with any rule, there’s potential to break them. Nobody really knows where this ‘rule’ came from. It may have come from Hemingway. Or was it Mark Twain? Regardless, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when. One this for certain. There’s a lot of debate whether this rule should be followed. Have you been told to only write what you know? Do you follow this rule? If so, stop. And this is why.

Writing what you know may be the right rule to apply, if you’re just starting out. Think about the first time you started writing. Were you paralyzed from starting because, well, you just didn’t know where to start? I compare this rule to the training wheels on a bicycle. Brett Anthony Johnson summarizes it the best in his essay in The Atlantic:

Writers may enter their stories through literal experience, through the ground floor, but fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.

It’s designed to get you to start writing. You use it to channel your own experiences and put them onto paper. However, don’t confuse ‘experiences’ with ’emotions’. To outline some different strategies and options, I’ve written down some variations to this tip. See if you can use any of these to give you a different angle on your story or writing habits.

Write What You Feel

Does a science fiction author work at NASA to be able to write science fiction? No. Their books are filled with technical information that seems to convince us that their reality exists. When you really get down to what makes that book resonate with you, it’s the story. It’s the characters. Their struggles. Their conflicts. Their victories. If you’re writing about something that you know nothing about, go back to the emotions. If that part of the book deals with sad characters, look back at your own life and pick out times you were sad. The more you do this, the more you’re going to channel your emotions and apply them to your characters.

Write What You Like

Do you find yourself writing about things that are popular today? In writing, or movies, there’s always a general trend towards certain stories. Nowadays, it seems like everyone is doing a superhero film. Writers fall into the same trap. You begin to write about things you don’t like. Eventually, you get bored and never end up finishing the story. What do you like? They may not be things you know, but they are things that you’re willing to spend hours researching. Lit Reactor provides a great comment about this:

Write about things you find interesting. If that means you like interdimensional space slugs that eat algae fondue, don’t worry about never having met an extraterrestrial, or the fact that you clearly prefer chocolate to algae. Focusing on what interests you will make your writing better. No matter what you write, there will be someone out there who enjoys the same things.

Know What You Write

So you have a story set in the 1900’s, in a country you’ve never visited. Should this prevent you from writing it? It’s never prevented any other author. But you have an advantage. Never before in the history of mankind have we had access to research at our fingertips. When you’re starting to write something, it’s easy to stop because you feel you don’t feel like you know anything about the topic. This is where you need to get technical about your story. This is where research is required. You have to know what you write. Looking for a specific location? Research it online. Read more about it. Learn more about it’s history. I know an author that researched a city for a story that takes place in the 1600’s. However, he found an unbelievable story that took place in that city 20 years ago. He was able to apply that story and adapt it to the 1600’s, eventually coming up with an angle that he would never have ‘made up’.

Write What You Want To Read

In the end, we’re all readers. We write because we have passion for reading. Don’t try to impress someone else. All too often, we fall into the trap of guessing what our readers want. There’s going to be a point where you’re going to start getting feedback for your story. When you’re starting out, ask yourself if it’s something you want to read. Are the characters interesting? Will people enjoy immersing themselves in your reality? This may be the closest to ‘write what you know’, because it refers back to your own experiences. However, not reminding yourself of this may side track you into pleasing others. What you’re going to end up with is a story that’s trying to impress everyone. There’s nothing in it that will resonate with one person. Start with the only person that matters at this stage. And that person is you.

Have you followed the ‘write what you know’ rule? Did it help or hinder you? Either way, change your perspective and change the rule. This just may help in helping you look at writing in a different light.

Image source: flickr


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