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NP Puts Her Thumb On the Scales in the Great “Write What You Know” Debate

Because I’m tired of pollyticks at the moment, we’re going to talk about writing. Look, I warned you this would happen. It’s right up there in the header for this blog. I can’t spend all my time taking the Smack-o-Matic to stupidty.

Well, not merely political stupidty, anyway. There’s some writing advice out there that sounds good but is actually, when you get right down to it, kinda stupid. NP puts it succinctly:

Anyone who writes has probably, at one point or another, heard the advice to “write what you know.” While on the surface it may be good advice since it means you’ll be able to write with knowledge, have you ever thought about how much it limits your writing?

[snip]

There is a balance between “write what you know” and “learn what you write.” After all, even people writing fiction based on their own lives need to do some research to make sure their facts are right, and that the details are perfect.

So if research is necessary anyway, why would you limit yourself by only writing what you “know”? Instead, why not write what you want, and do the research you need to in order to become an expert in that field?

Motion seconded even before you start – not that the LiveJournal this was originally posted on even exists anymore:

Now let me turn it on it’s head: you don’t have to experience it precisely to write it with authority.

Eh? What’s that? You can write what you don’t know? Isn’t that dead against all that write-what-you-know advice?

Yepper.

Let’s be utterly realistic here: if we were confined to writing what we know, there would be no fantasy, science fiction, historicals, westerns, spy thrillers (the actual life of a spy is mostly dead boring), or about a billion other types of books currently populating bookstore shelves. In one fell swoop, we destroy countless publishing categories with this rule.

NP and I write completely different books, in completely different styles, but on this matter we sound like carbon copies: take “write what you know” out back, shoot it, and then bury it. Let its rotting corpse feed the thriving tree of extrapolation and damned good research. Sure, write what you know – or can at least convincingly fake after 63 tons of research.

And never, ever not for a second forget what our dear fellow scribbler Glynis had to say about it:

“I think that is the biggest part of being a storyteller, being true to your characters and allowing them to present themselves to readers in ways that speak beyond the limitations of personal experience.”

This “write what you know” crap comes up all too often. I’m glad NP gave it a good sharp kick in the nads, and that I have no compunctions about putting the boot in when it’s already down. It deserves to be put in its place every now and again.

Look, if what you know makes for great storytelling, then by all means write it. But do not under any circumstances let that “rule” limit you. Write what interests you. Write what the story demands. Do the hard research. Extrapolate extrapolate extrapolate.

Oh, and feel free to give “write what you know” a right sharp kick in the delicates again. I think it’s starting to get up.

Comments

  1. says

    I've always viewed that advice as guidance, not as a rule to be strictly adhered to. It helps to write what you know. Heinlein, Baxter, Flynn, and Hogan, just to name a few, were engineers before they started writing science fiction. Asimov, Clarke, and Benford were scientists. Many people who write mysteries started out in one part of the criminal justice system or another. Knowing how things work helps when writing a story. I find sword and sorcery and other forms of fantasy boring, because their authors either don't know how the world works, or they don't care.OTOH, good research can often supplant experience. Some of the better SF writers today, like Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson are professional writers. Robinson's work, in particular, shows a thorough understanding of the subjects he's writing about.

  2. says

    Not being known for my writing, I'll insert a comment from teaching, since it sometimes generates a similar sentiment (teach what you know) and in any case (IMO) requires research whether you're somewhat familiar with the topic or not.Personally, I regularly agree to teach what I don't really know (at the time I am asked, I generally have a reaosnable handle on it when I actually start teaching). It forces me to learn things that I otherwise would not, for all the good intentions in the world. The first time is a damn lot of hard, hard work, but you end up with new knowledge and skills, and you get to do something different. Learning new stuff also seems to help with stuff you already know.People think I am crazy ("why would you teach that? You're crazy, so much work, it isn't your area!" – "Well, now this might be my area, too.")When you're born, you know nothing. Life is about learning. It's ridiculous (and personally painful to me) to imagine that you can ever stop.