Don’t Write What You Know

I asked some of my writing and publishing friends to tell me what one “writing rule” they’d like to see go away…forever. Many of them gave the same answer. Emphatically.

Author, blogger, and writers’ conference director Edie Melson said, “We need to quit killing creativity with the time-worn advice, ‘Write what you know.’ Instead, go write what you’re passionate about.”

New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist Rachel Hauck agreed. “‘Write what you know’ is the number one writing advice that needs to die. We only know a little bit. We quickly come to the end of our knowledge of life and even ourselves. I say: ‘Write who you are.’ You can never stop mining the depths of your heart, what you love and believe, your values and passions. I discover something new about myself with each book when I write ‘who I am.’”

Dennis Hensley—author, speaker, and founding director of Taylor University’s Professional Writing degree program—said that “Write what you know” is bad advice. “If I had followed this advice as a newspaper reporter for The Muncie Star in my early days as a hustling writer, I would have been out of a job in two weeks . . . because I didn’t know much about anything. Instead, I now teach my young college writers to reverse this phrase: ‘Know about what you write.’ In essence, take any topic (horse racing, first aid, speed reading, stand-up comedy, weather patterns) and get to know all you can about it. Interview experts. Read published material. Check out websites. Talk to clients or customers or patients involved in the topic. Request government documents. Try it yourself, if possible. Once you have engulfed yourself in research and you have a solid understanding of what your topic entails, then sit and organize your notes and write a useful and insightful article, column, or feature. You do not already have to be an expert on a topic. You only need to know how to become an expert on that topic. Do it over and over and you’ll generate a lot of bylines and steady cash flow.”

And author, speaker, and writing instructor Joyce Ellis took a similar approach. “Many of us would become very boring writers if we stuck to what we know—and some of us would have very short-lived careers (I have no one in particular in mind with that last phrase). So, the advice I often share when I teach is this: Write what you want to know. What makes you curious? What career have you always wished you had pursued? What part of the world fascinates you? What social issue pricks your conscience though you know little about it? The questions could go on and on. And the essential element for this kind of writing is research—not just ‘book-larnin,’ but what I call ‘leg research,’ getting out there in the trenches. For example, to write my teen novel, Tiffany, set in a hospital, I volunteered as many hours and in as many areas of a local hospital as they could make room for me for several months. Leg research not only produced factual knowledge but also suggested plot twists I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. So, write what you want to know.”

Want to know what some of the others I queried identified as standard writing advice they would like to make disappear? I’ll tell you in next week’s blog post.


44 Responses to Don’t Write What You Know

  1. Janine Rosche October 4, 2017 at 3:26 am #

    “What social issue pricks your conscience?” I am not afraid of tackling hard issues, but I wonder if people really want to read these things. All of my stories have moments that would spark good conversation if only people are willing to take their proverbial fingers out of their ears. However, I’ve been warned that agents and CBA publishers will shun me. Thoughts? Advice? Any authors that do this well? (I just read Christina Tarabochia and Sherrie Ashcraft’s book “On the Threshold.” They handled some hard issues marvelously.

    • Damon J. Gray October 4, 2017 at 5:35 am #

      I guess we would need to define what “hard issues” means. My initial thought as I read that was that today’s society seems to enjoy getting neck deep in “hard issues,” almost as though we have become a society that enjoys being angry about things. If there are no societal issues about which I can be angry, I’ll just be angry that there are no issues about which I can/should be angry. I don’t like that, but that does seem to be where we are – in the U.S. at least.

      • Janine Rosche October 4, 2017 at 5:52 am #

        My experience is that many want to ignore the elephant in the room until he steps on their board game.

        An example from my WIP is that someone from my character’s past commits suicide because a pastor told him he should rely on faith, not antidepressants to beat severe clinical depression. (It happens before the story and I’m tactful with the details, but I know it will ruffle some feathers).

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 4, 2017 at 6:51 am #

          Rock on, Janine. I can’t tell you how many people have explained to me that I’m dying by slow degrees because my faith is weak, that I merely have to shout, “Grace, grace!” at my mountain of malignancy and it will be gone.

          These folks tread on thin ice, saying that, and the possibility of a liquid diet until THEY heal.

        • Katie Powner October 4, 2017 at 7:28 am #

          I think you’re correct that it will ruffle some feathers, Janine. But feathers were made to bend without breaking.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 4, 2017 at 7:11 am #

        Damon, I think you’ve raised a vital point, that we’ve become a society of angry online trolls who in large measure define ourselves and our worth by the depth of our vindictive rage.

        It’s bee a long time coming. Robert Putnam pointed out in his masterful ‘Bowling Alone’ that disengagement from personal intercourse has been going on since the 50s, witnessed by a decline in the prominence of social organizations both religious and secular…including bowling leagues.

        Lack of community begets alienation, which in turn begets a spiritual numbness, turning life into an existential echo-chamber.

        And at the end, the only thing that can still reach a frozen heart is anger…for real causes, for the taken-on causes of others, or, as you put it, for its own dark sake, because it’s the only grudging warmth left in a universe gone nihilistically cold.

        • Katie Powner October 4, 2017 at 7:32 am #

          Well said, Andrew. Would it be okay to quote you on that last paragraph, please?

          Also, in the past few years as my family has intentionally tried to become part of the community where we live now, we’ve seen that people do still long for engagement. They occasionally look up from their isolation and wonder what’s out there. As believers, we need to be the ones taking the first step towards them, not expecting them to come to us.

    • Bob Hostetler October 4, 2017 at 9:35 am #

      It may surprise no one that I think Shakespeare is a great model in this. He had a knack for tackling sensitive issues and even presenting opposite sides of the issue in compelling, dramatic ways while still getting his point across. That skill may have kept him out of the stocks…or the stake!

  2. Carol Ashby October 4, 2017 at 5:18 am #

    Bob, that’s great advice to learn what you want to know and then write about it. That goes beyond topic to detailed content. I might even make it more forceful: need, not want. That’s especially true for historical fiction, where people who love your era know enough to object to anything you get wrong.

  3. Damon J. Gray October 4, 2017 at 5:36 am #

    Oh Bob … see, you left us salivating with that little “next week” teaser there. 😉

  4. Janyre Tromp October 4, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    Yes!! I have a whole file of stories and places I’ve run across that I find fascinating. For the most part, I know nothing about them. Copper mining? Don’t know a thing. Hot Springs, Arkansas and a link to the Chicago mob? Not much. When I’m determining what to write next, I sift through those files, choose a topic and go get my hands dirty with research. If I’m fascinated, my readers are much more likely to be fascinated, too.

    Now I might be able to teach a class on WWII Burma just because of some research 🙂

  5. Sharon Cowen October 4, 2017 at 6:35 am #

    Thank you, Bob Hostetler and Doc Hensley for the help with ‘knowing what I write.’

    • Bob Hostetler October 4, 2017 at 9:37 am #

      You’re welcome. Though Doc won’t be happy that you lumped us together. 🙂

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 4, 2017 at 6:47 am #

    Great article, Bob, though I think that ‘write who you are’ should sometimes be taken with a bit of caution.

    To wit, yesterday I mentioned to Barbara that the national hand-wringing over the events in Las Vegas seem a bit disingenuous for a country that happily tolerates a human wastage of 48 deaths-by-drunk-driving per day, not to mention the 9 deaths/day (mostly teens) caused by texting-while-driving.

    She replied that it’s context and contrast; that those killed were at a place where they expected to be safe and have fun and instead found terror and death.

    Then she said, “And you’re about to say, ‘So?’, right?”

    She was right. That’s what I was about to say.

    She went on. “Your experiences, of terror and death being your normal paradigm, aren’t what the rest of the world sees. You’ve been changed into something that is a bit less than human, and a bit more than iron.” She said it in a nice way, but the truth there is powerful.

    “You’re a Spartan, my dear, or maybe a Viking, and you never got the memo that your time is over.”

    It’s a paradigm that serves me well in facing the pain and worse that attend these days in my life, but as something to write, I think perhaps not.

    (Or perhaps, thought the writer, in a grasp at self-justification, it’s a viewpoint that this country needs to heed, at least in a small way, before it’s too late.)

    • Carol Ashby October 4, 2017 at 7:50 am #

      Barb has a point, but those !killed by DUI drivers were expecting to get to their destinations safely. It was probably texting that got me a cracked rib and three cracks in my pelvis last November when someone ran a !light at highway speed and hit my door. I’d expected to spend the night having fun in Taos, not in a Santa Fe hospital. By the grace of God and the construction of a 1-ton pickup, I’m still here, and one nurse did buy my first book. And how many babies die each day before they can expect anything?

      I’m glad deliberate murder can still get the US upset, even though too many shrug at the murders committed in ones and twos. When are we going to realize again, as a country and as individuals, how very precious every life is to God and should be to us?

      As Christian writers, what can we do to foster the love and forgiveness that prevents murder in the first place? How can we get our stories read outside our narrow target audiences, who have already responded to Jesus, by people who may not know the peace that comes from forgiving and being forgiven?

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 4, 2017 at 8:12 am #

        Carol, good point; how do we spread the message beyond those who already got it?

        Just as you can’t get a mule into an outhouse, you can’t get an atheist into the church comprised of our books. We are the Body, and it’s a body that these folks don’t want.

        What I think we have to do is to introduce Christian elements into books written for the mainstream, and pay no heed to those who realize they are reading a Christian story and get snippy. By being ‘courteous’ and labeling our books as Christian so these folks won’t be misled, we’re giving them the opportunity to opt out of a chance for salvation.

        Granted, it’s tough, and we can’t directly evangelize, but we CAN present attractive characters who are unquestionably Christian, and situations that these characters interpret, and to which they respond, in a Christian light.

        Films are doing this now – “Fury”, “Godzilla”, and the 2007 remake of “The 3:10 To Yuma” all ‘contain Christian elements in their story arcs.

        And I have not heard of picturegoers demanding their money back because of it.

        • Carol Ashby October 4, 2017 at 8:44 am #

          True, Andrew. All my stories are about nonbelievers who are attracted to the faith by the “unnatural” love and forgiveness they see in the lives of the Christian characters. My Roman site really is a fact-filled history site (<5% related to me or my books) that would appeal to anyone who is interested in the Roman Empire, yet one in ten international views appears to lead to a book sale. Are those buyers already Christians, or are they curious about how a religion that the Roman authorities tried to stamp out for 300 years grew until it became the predominant faith of the Empire that tried to destroy it?

          I don’t’ know. I hope some are the latter, because maybe my stories will encourage them to consider whether following Jesus today might be a wise choice for them. Plus a believer could share one as a good read with a friend, and that friend would experience what it’s like when a character listens, considers, and then embraces Jesus as her or his own Lord. It really is watching Christians live their faith, today or 2000 years in the past, that first attracts someone to Jesus.

      • L K Simonds October 4, 2017 at 9:31 am #

        Carol said, “How can we get our stories read outside our narrow target audiences, who have already responded to Jesus…?”

        And Andrew said, “What I think we have to do is to introduce Christian elements into books written for the mainstream….”

        Going off-topic, but these remarks seem really important to spend some time thinking about. First, it’s reasonable to conclude that those authors who want to target unbelievers as their audience most likely need to write for the general market. Secondly, their work can normalize Christianity to a multitheistic culture in the same way a lot of other stuff has been normalized – by socializing it via likable characters. It doesn’t have to be didactic, and it’s probably not a bad way to present Jesus.

  7. Kristi Woods October 4, 2017 at 7:28 am #

    Soaking it in. I wonder if fear comes into play concerning writing where passion flows versus writing what we know?

    • Bob Hostetler October 4, 2017 at 9:39 am #

      I’d answer your question, Kristi, but I’m a little afeard to.

  8. Martha Whiteman Rogers October 4, 2017 at 7:30 am #

    If I wrote only what I know, I wouldn’t have as many books published as I do. Even at my age, I am learning new things all the time. I know a lot, but so much more I don’t know. I see things that spark story ideas and then go about finding out more through research such as copper mining like Janyre mentioned.

    However, I write from my heart and sometimes use past experiences to show emotions and growth in my characters, but at the same time I am learning something about myself as well.

    We all come from different walks of life and experience life in so many different ways. I write about experiences and emotions that help me grow in my own walk. I have over 25 years worth of journals, and I have found those to be a valuable resource in writing. Not sure if that would be considered “write what you know” or not.

    Not sure if that really makes any sense at all, but I want to expand my horizons and write about what grabs my heart and won’t let go.

    • Bob Hostetler October 4, 2017 at 9:40 am #

      That does make sense. And I find that some of the best writing these days strikes a tone of, “let’s figure this out together,” rather than “here’s stuff I know already.”

      • Peggy Booher October 4, 2017 at 7:24 pm #

        I appreciate the writing that “strikes a tone of let’s figure this out together”. The “here’s stuff I know already” can have a tone of pride or, in the case of Christian writing, self-righteousness, if not written well.

  9. Katie Powner October 4, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    I don’t think the advice “write what you know” should be completely trashed. I think a small modification makes it useful: “start with what you know.” Many writers’ journeys begin this way. The first book I ever wrote was basically a semi-fictionalized autobiography. And it was necessary for me to write that book. It was a good starting point.

  10. Linda Riggs Mayfield October 4, 2017 at 8:12 am #

    Bob, I am deeply grieved and personally impacted by the racial division in our country. I was a white minority student in a traditionally black university the day Dr. King was assassinated. A caring university employee heard the first news of the shooting and found my boyfriend and advised him to find me and get off campus before the news spread. My African American sociology professor who preached pacivism instead of forced change was murdered on campus. My senior year, militants took over the campus by force and I got out of the building they commandeered first via a fire escape. How many people have had my experiences? Very few. Would reading about my years there and how they shaped who I became be uniquely informative and advance understanding of how we as a society view race today? I think it might, so I’ve begun writing a social and cultural memoir that is driving me to dig deep at the personal level as well as in the historical research. I totally agree that we can stagnate if we write what we already know instead of being curious enough to get to know that new thing we want to write about; but what we already know can also be a springboard to knowing more in a different way, understanding it better, and writing it well.

    • Carol Ashby October 4, 2017 at 8:52 am #

      Linda, my son is African American, adopted as a baby and raised in Anglo culture. In one of his political science classes, he’s shared his experience being both black as a grown man and a member of “white culture” as a child with the prof, who tended to make blanket statements that Paul knew weren’t accurate. I would LOVE to get a copy of that when you get it written. I’m sure both he and I would find it fascinating.

      • Linda Riggs Mayfield October 5, 2017 at 12:04 am #

        When it’s finished, I will make sure you receive a copy, but I’ll probably touch base with you time and again during the process, as well. I value your insights, and I think it’s going to be a long haul. 🙂

  11. Kathy Sheldon Davis October 4, 2017 at 9:44 am #

    This is the part of your post I’m wrapping up with a napkin and taking home in my purse: Write what you want to know. It’s opening up a world of ideas and possibilities for me.

    What do I want to know? Wow, I’m starting a list now. Thanks, Bob!

  12. Margot Carmichael October 4, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    I agree, don’t just write what you know, write what you love. Look it up, learn about it. Share that passion.
    But I think the worst advice is to just keep writing. If you keep writing and submitting and getting rejected, you will get discouraged. But keep learning with conferences, classes, and critique groups– three good Cs!

  13. Sandra Lovelace October 4, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    Good to know you and your friends agree with my pursuit. 😉
    Keep up the good work, Bob.

  14. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 4, 2017 at 2:18 pm #

    My favorite teacher used to say “always heed the ancient law and never write what you ain’t saw.”

  15. Hannah Davis October 4, 2017 at 8:35 pm #

    Love the quote from Joyce! (I also love joyce!)

    It’s true. As a journalist, one of my favorite aspects of the job is all the learning! I love being a student of the world every day, which means I’m never bored at my job. Currently working on a large feature article about the financial and personnel struggles facing suburban and rural fire departments and how the shifting of cultural values has impacted the bottom line. Learning so much and I love it!

    I actually think it’s easier to write about what you know, but it won’t get you very far. As a writer, you have to become a life-long student of the world.

  16. Callie Daruk October 5, 2017 at 4:23 am #

    Bob, thank you for doing this research and writing this post. It is excellent. My box feels safe and when the experts tell you to stay in it, you tend to. This is exactly what we need to hear so we can stand up, throw off the box, and stretch ourselves farther than we ever dreamed. Thank you so much!

  17. Carla Pollard October 8, 2017 at 2:16 am #

    Yes! Dig, discover, reveal with passion. It’s about thinking deeply and creating an atmosphere for others to think, question and dialog.

  18. Ann L. Coker October 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm #

    Good combo of resources as you practiced what you wrote in one article. Now a curiosity question: Are you the same Bob Hostetler who wrote “The Life Saver” about Trotman in the Jan. 2017 issue of Mature Living?

    • Bob Hostetler October 8, 2017 at 5:27 pm #

      Yes, that’s me.

  19. Michael October 18, 2017 at 7:24 am #

    I love getting confirmation. I encourage writers to consider writing about what they adore or abhor.

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