The Most Misunderstood Writing Advice: Write What You Know

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by John Briggs

Write what you know is good advice, if you do it correctly.

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “Write what you know, write what you know…” It’s practically a mantra in some writing circles.

So, should a lawyer only write legal thrillers?

A doctor only write medical dramas?

A plumber write a novel about a plumber?

No! That’s not what it means at all.

Write what you know refers to genre. It could just as easily be “Write what you read.”

After all, do you really think J.K. Rowling was a boy wizard, or Stephen King a miserable high-school girl with psychic powers? And if you think it only applies to fantasy/sci-fi/horror, etc., do you really think Tom Clancy was a submarine captain, or Bill Neary a Catholic priest treating lepers in Hawaii?

What Write What You Know Can Mean:

  1. Genre. Write the genre you read because you know it best — plot twists, pacing, action. If you read it, you should know what the readers want.
  2. Setting. You can make up a setting, but having details of real places can make them come alive, both to those who already live there and those who want to visit. Accuracy helps, but knowledge of setting doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember, Robert Louis Stevenson set The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London to help sales, but the street he described were in  Edinburgh because it made the story better. Use your knowledge of a setting that makes the story work.
  3. Characters. Characters can be based on people you know. Their traits and idiosyncrasies can make you characters appear more real.
  4. Voice. You may start out imitating another author’s voice because it’s one you know, but eventually there’s one voice you should know above all else. Find out what makes you unique and original and a solid storyteller, and apply that to your story.

So, write what you know doesn’t always need the strictest interpretation. Yes, a lawyer might create more realistic legal jargon, or a doctor might create a better scene in the operating room. If you live in New York or Paris or Dubuque you may do a better job capturing the setting than an outsider, but everything, from your character’s career to setting, time period, and dialect can be researched.

A native may have advantages, but with diligence, you can make up the difference. But the only way to write a compelling romance novel, fantasy tale, children’s book, etc., is to read them. Know what readers expect in their story. Study the craft, learn what works and what doesn’t, and then begin to write. Don’t do it the other way. You can experiment with style and voice and word choice and all that, but if you don’t write what you know, there’s a good chance you’ll write it wrong, or flat, or improperly, and that means starting over.

When someone says, as they always do, “Write what you know,” do it, but do it your way, because what you know in the real world can make your writing better.

 

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, is coming out Sept 6th, 2016.


Intent to HoldIntent to Hold

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Ryan answers a call from his estranged wife in Mexico to help find her kidnapped brother. When he and his partner Meredith Ryan arrive, they find the crime is not as simple as they were told.

Betrayed and caught by the police, they are expelled from Mexico. Returning to Puerto Vallarta by boat at night, Nick and Meredith battle nature, Federales, crime cartels and even Nick’s own family to rescue his brother-in-law.

To complicate their mission, Nick must face the end of his marriage while Meredith hasn t yet put her own nightmares to rest. Thonie Hevron’s 35-year career in law enforcement fueled this action-packed story.


 

 

 

 

 

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28 thoughts on “The Most Misunderstood Writing Advice: Write What You Know”

  1. I can’t begin to mention how many times people told me to write what I know. I limited myself to my own experiences. It’s only later in life that I understood that writing what I know means so much more. Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My soon-to-be-released novel, Red Flags, is about a Soviet figure skater. I can barely make it around the ice, but I’ve been watching the sport my entire life. I’ve been to Russia, but not to the Soviet Union– ordinary Americans could not travel there. However, I spent over a year doing research before I started writing the book.

    I wouldn’t want to write if I could only write about my own life or my own direct experiences. That would be boring for me and even more so for the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My advice is: “Write what you know; what you don’t know, find out.” In the age of the Internet, it’s a lot easier to do than it used to be. Even before modern technology, I could always find people more than willing to share their expertise on any given subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Todays post was helpful. I usually write memoirs, funny, sad, meaningful etc. I decided to write a fiction romance. I tried a short story and posted it on my blog. It received great comments and Sally Cronin is going to post it on her blog. I am thrilled. I stepped outside the box and it worked out for me. Thank you for sharing. :o)

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  5. When this was posted, I’d just received Ashley Scott Meyers’ latest newsletter, where he dissects this subject. The problem with “write what you know” is that once a story’s been written, the concept can’t be changed, which is why more thought should be put into it than “write what you know”, which is especially problematic when spending a lot of time on that story. Plus, story concepts need to be marketable. “Passion projects” aren’t marketable on their own, they need to be legitimate, which most aren’t, because most passion projects are about the same experience that everyone will have experienced and lots of people will have written-about also. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean “write your autobiography”, it means “write something authentic”, with emotional realism and characters that are believable and don’t betray themselves. Most of the great stories I’ve experienced aren’t passion projects, and even then, those that are have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. Plus, writing from experience means that every story we tell will be the same, because they’ll all be coming from the same place. That’s why the premise is the most important decision in storytelling, because it’s the source of the idea that reminds us, “this is what it’s about”; so that premise should be interesting enough for other people, marketable enough for buyers and emotionally realistic enough for the writer. Especially because “write what you know” doesn’t consider who this story is “for”, and they should all be “for” someone; the buyers call that a target audience, and the writer has their own idea of that, but a story can’t just drift around aimlessly, it has to work for someone, which isn’t guaranteed to happen if the writer is just writing what they know – and if the writer is writing something similar to every other passion project out there, it probably won’t be unique enough for the people that have already experienced those.

    Another thing to consider is what projects a writer currently has lined-up, and to find out what’s hot at the moment, so they know which project to complete and submit. The other works do count, but there’s a time for each of them, and the passion projects often take some time to get to a point at-which they’re of equal quality on the market as the others. Even the industry trends, in terms of what people are buying and what’s selling, will tell us that those kind of passion projects are irrelevant to other people, who aren’t going to care about a story more just because of its significance to the writer.

    Generally, I write what I want to write, and keep an out eye on who wants what, so I always have something that can be submitted. That wouldn’t be the case with passion projects. Even if they’re not bought, they’ll still be unique, so someone will want them eventually.

    And – fiction is a gateway into a new story. As a reader, I don’t want to be a told a story set in a world I already know. I want to experience life in a new genre, instead of having to think about a character’s problems in the same way that I think about my own. But if a story is written from experience, that will inevitably be the only kind of conflict that can be created. Fiction should reveal the hidden secrets about the world, instead of reinforce the boring reality we already inhabit. Which isn’t the kind of story worth telling, because an adaptation of reality can only be as interesting as reality. I know I wouldn’t want to read that. I’ve only ever written one story based on personal experience, and the draft revision process turned it into something else entirely, so the people that have written something close to the real world should really ask themselves whether they’re committing everything to the story. Submitting to the story world is the only way for the story to work as its own thing, rather than as an extension of the writer’s ego. Because when I read something, I want to be told a story, not look at someone’s confusing autobiography.

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  6. Stephen King was not a miserable school-girl with mystic powers? !Well that’s ruined it! Great insight. Like your opinion. Write what you know. I use to think it was literal till I discovered I could write about anything. For example my character travels to places I had not been to Ghana, Vietnam. I simply looked at photos and described what I saw. That’s the beauty of writing its as good as what you can imagine, dream or see and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

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  7. Write what you know can also be applied to research and study. I adore history, especially Victorian history. I wrote a novel set in 1888 Manhattan. I have never “been” there (no matter how old my kids think I am!), but I did extensive research on Manhattan, the upper classes and the lower classes, the mores of the times and the Victorian Era as a whole. I could probably teach a class on it! I read newspapers and diaries, took that knowledge and wove it into the story. It’s a different story than I envisioned, but it turned out well.

    In the same vein, I have never been in another galaxy, so why should I be writing Science Fiction? In this case, I have traveled extensively all over this planet and transferred what I know of other places to my made-up galaxy. The beauty of SF is that I can use my imagination for the things we can’t know and still ground my book in things familiar to us all. What I didn’t know, like the harder science and quantum physics, was studied and applied in the novel.

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