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Write what you know. The worst advice ever?

Write-what-you-Like-Austin-Kleon

 

Any budding writer who reads books and website articles about how to write will probably at some stage come across the advice: ‘write what you know’. 

But this is one piece of advice that I’ve never fully agreed with and I don’t really accept it. Sure it’s generally fine if you write ‘general’ or ‘literary’ fiction, or if you’re say a teacher and you want to set your novel in a school, sure that makes sense. Draw on what you know. But make sure that if this is you, that you want to write about a school setting not because you think you should.

The same goes for if you’re a police detective or a forensic expert, knowledge from your working life would be vital if you want to write a crime, thriller or who dunnit? style novel.

And the same for an army officer. It’s sound advice if you’re writing an action adventure set in present day Afghanistan.

But what if you’re not one of these? Or you are and you want to write something else? Should the army officer stick to military action adventure novels because it’s what he/she knows? What happens if their dream is to write a sci-fi romance story? Should they let their dreams be shattered by one piece of advice?

Like the picture above nicely shows ‘write want you like‘. 

The point is doubly illustrated if you are wanting to write or are currently writing or do write historical fiction novels, fantasy or sci-fi? (As well as others.)

Then unless you’re a time-traveller, have walked out of a wardrobe from some mystical land with talking animals or are from outer-space, then chances are you won’t be able to rely on the advice writer’s seem to come across everywhere – write what you know. If this is you (or similar) then this may not be the best advice for you to follow. At least not for the entire novel.

This advice may serve well in some respects but not for all of your novel. For example,

Your character is baking a cake. Any cake. It doesn’t have to matter which. It’s not going to shake up the plot of your particular story. So which cake do you decide to give the character to bake? Let’s say that you’ve never baked a battenburg cake, but you love making a carrot cake, well make the character bake a carrot cake. You know how to make one, how it smells, looks, its texture throughout the entire baking process. You draw on your own experiences for this scene.

Drawing on your experiences and what you know for snippets of details and scenes in your story may just bring that scene to life. But for the entirety of your work – nah. Write what you enjoy, what you want to and fit what you know around it – but only if it fits.  Who knows what you’d have created if you had stuck to the old adage ‘write what you know’.

This advice is also flawed as people don’t know everything anyway and certainly can’t remember everything they’ve ever been told or ever read. So research is needed. Even if you’re an expert on your storyline chances are there will be something you’ll need to read up on new or to refresh your memory. Some novels won’t need much research at all, others will need loads – again the chances are that no matter what you’re writing they’ll need some.

So I think a better piece of advice would be to not be afraid of research. Research into something new becomes what you know.  But don’t forget that thing called fiction. It’s artistic licence with the facts.

Remember: even the best advice is subjective – to the writer giving it (who has drawn upon his/her own experiences/method)  to who it is given too. Not all advice writer’s give will work for you (excluding grammar and punctuation of course) – find what works for you.

Having said that, I think its much more important to concentrate on creating a great work of fiction rather than relying on and being limited to ‘write what you know’.

So,

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that ‘write what you know’ is bad advice, it can serve you well, but it’s extremely limiting and is definitely not the be all and end all of writing.

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One comment on “Write what you know. The worst advice ever?

  1. I think the advice of “write what you know” is only applicable for beginning writers who don’t know where to start. As you pointed out, that’s awfully limiting, plus if you start writing about something you don’t know, you’ll eventually become an expert. That’s why I like writing fantasy/sci-fi, because I can make up the world it’s set in and don’t have to do research. 🙂

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