Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Write What You Know": Helpful or Harmful Advice?

This advice--writing what you know--is one of the most popular, cliche writing advice that has been taught for years. Many writers agree with it. They teach that writing what you know is the only way that your writing can come across as genuine. 

However, there are also writers who teach against this, proclaiming that our books will come across as dull if we stick to only writing what we know.

So how are we supposed to know which advice to follow? 

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First, let's look at the helpful aspects of writing what we know: 

1. It is a healthy form of expression.

As an introvert, I much prefer expressing myself through the written word--especially through my characters' thoughts and emotions. Besides, all art is a form of expression, and this includes fiction.

2. Your writing will come across as genuine.

By writing what you have knowledge or experience in, you are able to write the story with more of an authenticity than you would have if you relied solely on research.

For example: The main compliments I receive on my YA novel, Purple Moon, is that my protagonist, Selena, is realistic and her voice is authentic. 

Why? Well, it may have to do with the fact that I wrote that novel when I was 16, the same age as Selena. And because of that, I knew what it was like to be a teenager in today's generation. 

By writing what I knew, I was able to incorporate that sense of realism into my writing, and it came across as genuine to my readers.

3. It can serve as a form of therapy.

Perhaps you're still dealing with the aftermath of an event that occurred several years ago. Rather than continuing to bury your thoughts and emotions, allow yourself to heal by incorporating that experience into a story. 

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4. It's provides reassurance for your readers 
by showing them that they are not alone.

Since I was diagnosed with  Type 1 Diabetes, I have had such an urge to write a book about a teen who is struggling with this disease. Not only for my own sake, but also to comfort teens who may be dealing with it as well. 

When your readers discover that you have shared their struggles, they will gain a sense of connection to you. No one likes to feel alone, which is one reason why we love to read: it takes away that sense of isolation.

Recently, I received an email from a reader who said she could relate with an issue Selena faced in Purple Moon. She then asked if I had ever dealt with it as well, which I have. 

I can only assume she was comforted knowing she was not alone. Because not only had I gone through that same situation, but I was able to overcome it, which I believe provided hope for her to conquer it as well. 

However, this advice can be harmful as well. 
Here's why:

1. If we all wrote what we knew, 
our writing would be very limited.

I would only be able to write about things that I have seen, felt, dealt with, or experienced. My books would sound the same, my characters would be a carbon copy of myself, and eventually I would run out of story ideas.

2. It takes away our freedom to explore as a writer.

Writing is an adventure: It gives us permission to explore worlds that do not exist and places we have never visited. It gives us a chance to look at the world through another pair of eyes--to explore what it would be like to be an extrovert rather than an introvert, or vice versa. 

It broadens our knowledge about subjects and time periods we initially knew nothing about, and it deepens our understanding for those who are facing situations we may never have to experience.

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If we can become anyone, make anything, and go anywhere with writing, why limit ourselves to only writing what we know?

3. Writing what we don't know deepens 
our sense of understanding and compassion for others. 

In a way, only writing what we know can become a form of narcissism. 

Since we already are so focused on ourselves, we become adjusted to this self-centered way of thinking. Therefore, it is only natural to want to write stories that have a lot to do with our own lives and to construct characters that are similar to ourselves.

However, writing from another's perspective reminds us that we are not the center of the world. It reminds us that there are others out there who are struggling far more than we are.

If you are writing a story from the perspective of a homeless person, your compassion for that group of people may begin to deepen. You will start to see them in a new light because you have, in a sense, walked in their shoes.

As writers, we have a similar gift that actors do: The ability to pretend we are someone we are not; to transport ourselves to a different time and place through imagination. 

But if we solely write what we know, then we are putting ourselves in a box--one that forces us to look only at ourselves: our own knowledge, experience, emotions, etc.


I think the key here is finding the right balance between writing what you do know and don't know. Don't limit yourself by only writing what you know, but also don't shy away from pulling from your past experiences and being vulnerable. 

It is okay for writers to share bits of our lives, but we should explore the lives of others as well. 

What are your thoughts? Which do you prefer: writing what you do know or don't know? 

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  1. I agree! I believe it's best to write some of each. I think that writing what you know has its place, and we all to an extent write what we know, or at least some aspects of it. Even when I am writing about something fantastical, there are parts of my real life and voice somehow woven in.

    I mean, no one exactly knows what it's like to fly on a dragon, do they ;) But I try to capture things I do know. Like the feeling of vertigo, the view from being very high up, etc!

    1. Absolutely! We would have no reason for imagination if we didn't make things up every once and a while. ;)

  2. If I wrote about what I know, it would not be something worth reading. To me writing is, as you said, a chance to be someone else and experience a different life through words. Somewhat like reading, except you're the one writing the story. So I think in other cases it is fine to write what you know, but for me personally, I prefer to write what I have not experienced myself. And then comes in the aspect of every good writer reads a lot. By reading we can gain "experience" in a way. And those were my very ramble-y thoughts on the subject. =D

    1. I would much rather write what I don't know as well. I love experimenting what it's like to be other people living in places that I have never been to; like you mentioned, my books would be completely boring if they were all based on my life!

      Thanks for commenting! =)

  3. I also have often thought about writing a book about a teen struggling with Type One Diabetes as well. I like to write about what I know personally (things I struggle with, my faith etc), and apply them to situations I might not know so much about. I like to write about what I know because it's comfortable there ;)
    Great post- made me think about branching out more into the unknown :)

    1. I agree--it is comfortable writing what we know, which is probably why I incorporated so much of myself into Selena in Purple Moon.

      Also, I definitely think there needs to be more books about teens struggling with diabetes. I have only found a couple so far, but they are very outdated. And as I mentioned, it would be a great opportunity to incorporate some of our own struggles and experiences into the book as well--not to mention a great way to raise awareness!

  4. I definitely agree with this! Like you said, it's a balance to write what you know and don't know. =)

    1. Exactly. =) And even if we have never gone through a situation that our protagonist goes through, we can still find ways to relate to him/her. For example, I have never lost a member of my immediate family, but I certainly know the pain of grief and sorrow. I could incorporate my own experiences into the story just by pulling from similar situations that I have gone through.

      Thanks for commenting!


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