Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Write What You Don't Know

There are a couple of cliches that get thrown at writers all the time, one of the most common being "write what you know." It's like the first piece of advice given to all writers and is, I think, one of the worst. The idea is that if you write about a subject matter in which you are well-versed and knowledgeable...something. I don't know what. You'll write well, I guess. Me, I think this is bollocks. Bad advice. Wrong and wrong-headed. Et cetera.

Writing about what you know will likely allow you to write at great length about subjects that don't inspire you, that don't challenge you, that are not particularly interesting to you. That's a recipe for bad, dull fiction. For example, I know a lot about spreadsheets. Should I write about that? No, I didn't think so. How about discretionary spending on grant budgets? No? How about expression matching in PERL? No! "Writing what I know" will not yield compelling stories or good fiction.

What I think we should do is write about what we care about. Write about what fascinates us, even if we know nothing about it. If we're really interested, we'll do the research and get smart about our subject, because we'll have a passion to find out the facts and the history and the details, and our writing will be informed by that passion.

Or, as John Gardner put it (so much better than I have), "Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister.”

And really, more to the point, good fiction is less about subject matter than it is about character. We should write about characters that we care about and in whom we are interested, and because we care and are interested, that care and interest will be translated into our writing and to our readers.

I'd like very much to lead a campaign to eliminate the "write what you know" advice. If someone is a beginning writer and asks you for advice, don't tell them to write what they know; tell them to write what they care about, what they are interested in, and tell them to write it the way their favorite writers would do it.

I was going to write about details, but this seemed more important today. Maybe I'll write about details on Friday, when everyone is out shopping. We'll see.


  1. Preach it, brother!

    Coming at a topic with the freshness of naivete of the subject will always, I feel, result in better fiction because you spend more time trying to get it right.

    In doing that, you communicate your passion in the topic, which makes other people passionate, and so on and so forth until you've got yourself an audience.

  2. Right? If I wrote what I "know", my work would be choked with architectural details and historical anecdotes no one wants to read.

    But I know human emotions. And how to fake them. ;)

  3. Fantastic post.

    I like to put some of what I've experienced into my writing (i.e.: One character in my WIP has a lot of mentions to the time he upended a bottle of antifreeze in a Chem class, something that has happened to me) but I know that I couldn't write just my life, because that would not make for interesting storytelling.

  4. Good advice. Characters are the lifeblood of fiction. (I think John Gardner said something like that too.) Write what you know? That's what research is for.

    Shopping on Friday? Nooooooo I suggest a Ban on shopping the Friday after Thanksgiving. It's horrible what "they" are trying to do to Thanksgiving. I'm sleeping in and then lunch with friends and a pint or two, but no "shopping". The thought makes me ill.

  5. It depends on your perspective. Assuming we're only dealing with fiction here, if you know literary fiction, you will probably gravitate toward that as opposed to erotica, for example. In such an example, you would be writing what you know.

    In that sense it doesn't imply anything about the story and characters, but more the nature and style of the writing. The voice that can make hearts swoon in a romance novel may not be able to build intense action and suspense in a thriller.

    On the other hand, in my writing I make all sorts of stuff up (NOTE: it is fiction, let's all issue a collective "duh"), so I don't know it until it is already written.

    In some cases pearls of originality develop and I create characters and events that others won't know about until they read my stories, either. Writing what you know can be counter-intuitive to creativity (which is Scott's point, I think).

  6. Clearly people who write sci-fi/fantasy don't know those places or the kinds of things that happen. What they do know is genuine human experience to weave into those other dimensions.
    I really like this post, because it frees the writer to explore and not feel constrained by that old advice. Also, I have had people whose work I was critiquing say, "But that's what really happened," because they had written an experience into the fiction and would not change it because it was "real."

  7. Tricia: It's funny how often reality makes bad fiction!

  8. I so agree. One problem I have with trying to write about life as I actually live it (or have lived it) is lack of perspective. Being too imbedded in a setting or thematic material or emotion hampers one's ability to see many of the details--you're just too close to the material to see all the facets.

  9. I've heard it rephrased as 'write what you can imagine,' which works much, much better for me.

    What I know provides a jumping off point, but the stories have to go places I've never been, or they won't be interesting to me.

    However, let's be clear that 'what you know' isn't simply your vocation or avocation or random facts at your command, it's things like how it feels to be dumped, what it's like to have a broken arm, and the feeling of one's first kiss. Those are things everyone knows, and things writers can use as points of contact with readers.

  10. "write what you care about"

    Well said.

    still, I think you might be taking this advice too literally. when I think of 'write what you know' I don't necessarily think of subject matter, but more about emotional connection. Each of my characters is a part of me in some way.

    who knows, maybe I am taking that advice wrong -- stretching it to where it makes sense to me. I do that all the time.

    and, I won't be shopping on Friday. I hate shopping crowds. Give me the internet and my credit card over a mall any day :D

  11. I think that "write what you know" is advice that's generally given in a literal sense, and given in terms of subject matter when some beginning writer asks, "What should I write about?"

    I also think that at root, all fiction has to do with the problems of being human, of the existential questions, and we all draw on our own experience of being when we write about that and create characters. But rarely is "write what you know" a statement about that; it's more the advice to the mechanic that he write about mechanics, that an accountant write about accountancy, etc. But the best fiction is not only well-written, but well-imagined. That's what I'm talking about.

  12. I think the problem with the rule is that it's far too vague. For someone new to writing, they probably won't know what to do with this insightful bit of information. I once took a writing class from a teacher who said, on the first day, that the only important thing she wanted to teach was how to write from the heart instead of from the head. For her, this was a lesson that would take several weeks to teach. That probably does a better job of expressing what this rule is trying to express.

  13. Davin: Do you think that making sure we draw a distinction between what we write about and how we write helps in this case?

  14. That makes sense to me. I also liked how you put it, writing what you care about.

  15. I stole "write what you care about" from Jeff Kleinman, my fabulous agent.

  16. Oh ! I love this post. I can't tell you how many times I've thought that advice stunk!

    I write what I want to know about. I write about that which I love and about that which I have a passion for.

    The characters I write about are people that aren't perfect. They are genuine kids that make mistakes. I care about them. And I want my readers to care about them too.

    You are right on Scott. And I would never tell a beginning writer to write what they know. But you know what? That's what writers told me.

    Now why'd they wanna go and do that? Thanks for this. :)

  17. Yes, exactly! Passion and creativity are what truly makes a story come alive. Even in non-fiction, you can't just focus on what you know as reality, you need to dress it up with technique and realistic characters.


  18. I can't agree more! The most fun I had involved writing a short story, where half of it took place in a real volcano in New Zealand. Have I been to New Zealand? No. Did I have a blast doing the research? Absolutely.

  19. I was just over doing some ‘research’ at a boatbuilding forum—because, of course I don’t know nearly enough about the subject even though I’m writing about it. One of the gentlemen suggested, respectfully, “Write what you know.” (Don’t think he meant ‘get out of the boatyard and go back to the kitchen,’ but it sort of felt that way.) Any way, I remembered this post and I felt all better.
    I replied to his comment: “If we wrote only what we knew, there would be no Sci-Fi or Fantasy genres, and a whole lot more boring stuff out there. I think it's better to write what interests and excites you.”

    Thanks for putting those thoughts in my head, even if I didn’t express them as eloquently.

  20. I got an edited version of that clichéd advice this way:

    "Write what you know hurts."

    That is, mine your experience for real emotion. Subject matter, location, and characters you should make up.

    Sort of a Stanislavskian approach to writing.

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