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On Writing What You Know: How to Write What You Know

This week I stopped complaining about restrictive writing rules in favor of more generous advice. It’s really a continuation of the same theme, though.

Write what you know.


Tell your readers what they need to know.

The trick to both of those, really, is knowing what you know (and, of course, what you need to know).

Knowing What You Know

Yesterday’s post touched on that — you know more than you think you do. Even if you don’t have any personal experience with space-based warfare or making long journeys a-horseback, you do know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, to chase a dream that’s out of reach, to rage against the status quo.

Stories are about the human condition — about the way people experience life. And whether you’re writing a period piece or a mainstream character novel, your characters are dealing with the same emotions, motivations, and life experiences you’re familiar with from your own condition.

Inasmuch as “write what you know” is restrictive, this is how: if you’re not the one who rages against the status quo, if your story is one of love and loss, you probably have more to say on that theme than on the other. You can choose any setting, any genre you want, but you’ll say more, and say it more powerfully, if you fill that setting with emotions and motivations you’ve known in your own life.

When I say it like that, it doesn’t sound too restrictive, really, does it? As Josh said in yesterday’s comments, a lot depends on the severity of the word “know,” and I think we all tend to interpret it as restrictively as possible. I suspect we do that out of the same sense of self-doubt that makes us think our lives are boring.

If we open up the idea of “know” just a little bit, though, this rule becomes less and less a restriction, and more a guideline — a helpful focus.

Knowing What We Need to Know

Gods Tomorrow is a near-future sci-fi novel flavored with some very cool technology, and I’ve been told I wrote it quite well. I’ve never participated in a holographic chat session (complete with tactile feedback), but I know about the technology. I’ve never participated in a world-changing medical study using nanotechnology and advanced biometric modeling to reverse aging, but I know about it.

I’ve talked before about the right way to do writing research, and I said it should be secondary to the construction of your message. “Secondary” doesn’t mean “completely insignificant,” though. It’s nice to write about your own direct experience, but “write what you know” doesn’t limit you to those experiences. It limits you to the things you’re capable of understanding…and that’s a much larger set.

If you want to do it right, if you want to tell your readers everything they need to know, you have to know that stuff. Some of it will be in your own backstory, and the rest is out there patiently waiting for you on Google. “Write what you know” is a homework assignment. As much as anything else, it’s a reminder to do your research.

And a lot of that research is untargeted reading. Because even thuogh I’ve never been part of an epic space battle or a sorcerous duel, I know a lot of things about both. And most of what I know about writing sci-fi and fantasy comes from a lifetime of reading sci-fi and fantasy.

There’s nothing you can do to improve as a writer that’s more effective than reading. Read like a writer (constantly evaluating what works and what doesn’t, and why). Read like a reader (losing yourself in someone else’s life experience). Spend time in books, and you’ll be astonished how much you come to know.

Writing What You Know (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopIt’s a bit of an intimidating order, “write what you know,” but it’s more nuanced than it maybe first appears. Even so, there are real benefits to practicing the literal interpration of the phrase.

That’s what I talked about yesterday — what Courtney and I do with our personal stories here at Unstressed Syllables, and what I once praised Julie Roads for doing regularly at her site. Bryce called it parable-ing. I called it the blogstory style.

Whatever you want to call it, I would challenge you to try it out. Sometime in the next week, capture a memory in words. Happy or sad, dramatic or mundane, share a little slice of your story in a blog post.

And then, in a paragraph or a pair of posts, make a parable of it. At the very least you’ll get some practice writing what you know…and you might even decide you like doing it.

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