Write what you don’t know.

     90% of writing books and advice columns use the same old phrase “Write what you know.”  I understand the general thought behind this cute little trope, but it doesn’t hold water for me.  When I read a book or watch a movie, I don’t want a sermon, I want an adventure, an exploration of the human psyche.  I want to go on a journey with the author, not be lectured on some subject on which the author is an expert.

     I’m not saying that every writer should suddenly write about rocket science simply because they don’t understand it.  I’m saying that every writer should discover something about the world when they write their stories.  When I write, I’m constantly on Google-

“What kind of hats did they wear in the 1930’s?”

“What’s a role in the military that is open to women that requires a lot of intelligence?”

“Are there wheat fields in Northern California?”

“When did the Germans bomb London?”

“What’s the minimum sentence for first degree murder in California?”

     -these are all real searches I’ve done on Google (only one of which was not for writing, I’ll let you guess which… awk-ward!).  These aren’t long hours of research into a subject, which I’d like to do but I’m not entirely sure where to start on some things.  But while every search pulls me away from the word document for ten to fifteen minutes, I always come away knowing a little more about my world and often find more interesting things to include in my writing than simply what I’d set out to know.

     I suppose in reality, I should recommend writing a combination of what you know and what you don’t know.  There should be a part of you and your life and your experiences in everything you write, that’s simply how you relate to the stories you’re telling.  But I often find the best stories are the ones where I feel like I’m watching the author’s own journey, not just the characters’.

     So what do you think?  Write what you know?  Or learn what you want to write?

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5 thoughts on “Write what you don’t know.

  1. Mix up what you know and what you’d like to know. Use what you know about people to lie convincingly about your characters.

    Research is wonderful, too. My most recent novels were science fiction, and where research used to mean fun at the libraries, this time it meant fun on the Internet. Now I’m going to write about something else I’ve never done, coaching football, but I can mix research with personal experience to make the character very real to my readers.

  2. I’m guessing the minimum sentence one. ;-)

    It’s interesting pondering the applications of this to music, especially for a film composer. Writing new stuff and exploring new musical territory, at least to some degree, comes with the job, and yet each individual composer can definitely maintain his own style- his own “what he knows”, be it the classical training of John Williams or the distinctive oddness of Danny Elfman- within all the exploration…

  3. Funny you should post this after I just got my hands on a book of author biographies. Quite a few of these now-famous authors didn’t know anything but writing and were discouraged by all the advice to “write what you know.” Finally, they gave up and started knowing what they wrote instead. Many of them did Tolkien-esque world building. Pretty cool!

  4. Great post! I’ve heard a replacement adage to this trope – “Don’t write what you know – write what you want to know.” There are some topics that need research to portray realistically, but no one said you had to do that research before starting! I also think there are places for just writing about things you have no “knowledge” about… just a dream… or an essence… In either case, you don’t need to be an expert to write about something. Far from it.

    And really… if you wrote only about what you knew, fantasy and sci-fi as we know it wouldn’t exist! Even Tolkien hasn’t been to Middle Earth.

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