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Is “Write What You Know” Good Writing Advice?

Write What You KnowI was looking at a writer’s blog the other day and she was promoting the maxim, “Write About What You Know”.  The argument is that your writing will come easier and be more realistic if it is based on your personal knowledge and experience.

This is a theme often promoted at Writers’ Workshops.  On the surface it does seem to make good logical sense.

So for example, if you are writing about the death of a loved one or perhaps the breakup of a marriage, your writing will be better if you have experienced this yourself.  How much more realistic is your “life in the trenches” novel due to the fact that you were in them?

Being a Libra is a heck of a problem at times as I can see both sides of most arguments.  Yes, the maxim does seem to make sense, but then I think of other arguments.

A friend of mine has recently written her first novel, a piece based on her family history.  She traced one forebear who worked as a maid in a large house and she wanted one of her characters in the novel to do the same.  At the time of writing she hadn’t much idea of what conditions her great, great aunt worked in, or what her life was like, but after much research (which incidentally involved a trip to the large house) she was able to write this passage of the novel in a very realistic and informed way.

So, can research fill in some of the gaps of your own knowledge and experience?  My answer would be “yes”.  I believe that a skilled wordsmith, after research, could write an authentic account of almost anything.

I once had the good fortune to meet R. J. Ellory who writes crime novels based in America.  He had written a number of these without ever visiting America, although his fans believe the writing to be very realistic and based on a good knowledge of the country.

So taking the above examples:

The death of a loved one - most of us, given a certain age, will have experienced this, but if not I suspect that all of us will know one or more people who have gone through it.  There’s also literature, film and TV drama which will give good insight into this experience, let alone academic research.  So it should be possible to gain a good understanding of how people feel, the ongoing affects, etc. through research.

Marriage breakup - hopefully fewer will have direct experience of this, but again it will have happened to friends, family, work colleagues, acquaintances, etc., so again should be fairly easy to research.

Experience of “life in the trenches” – is a little less common, but again there is a wealth of material out there to enable the writer to get a good understanding (2014 will be a particularly good year for this type of material given the anniversary of the start of The Great War).

Another thought I have on the maxim is that if it were absolutely followed, work like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, may have never seen the light of day.  What experience, either gained directly or by research, did “F” have of a person being born old who got younger as time passed.  There can be none, but a brilliant story was created – out of imagination.  I guess we could say the same about the whole genres of science fiction and fantasy – the stories come from imagination and not hard facts and experiences.

So my thought is that perhaps “writing what you know” is good advice for someone starting out in writing, but perhaps not always good advice for many others.

What do you think about this?  Should we stick to what we know or should we let our minds wander more freely?

About Tony At The Word...

In addition to my own reading and writing activities, I am passionate about promoting both.

I hope that through “The Word Runs Through It” we can encourage reading and writing and a connection between people.

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  • Geoffrey Sheldon February 27, 2014, 9:47 pm

    What we all have experience and knowledge of is society and how we operate within it. We are social animals and our lives are built around relationships with friends, family and work colleagues.

    Whatever the subject, historical, science fiction, vampire, no matter how unlikely the topic or storyline, the talented writer will always be able to bring to bear that understanding and experience and inject it into their writing to give it reality, depth and truth. In this respect we all write about what we know.

    • Tony February 28, 2014, 11:05 pm

      Point taken, but sometimes when we write what we know it fits into a framework created by pure imagination.