Tag s | Writing Craft

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.


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