Misunderstood Writing Advice

When it comes to writing advice, sentences that include always and never are clues (when it comes to rules of creating stories) that the advice you are about to receive, no matter who’s offering it, should at the very least be scrutinized. And writing advice that is intended to be deep while being short, is most often confusing. Welcome to my series of posts regarding all this. 

 #1 Write what you know

Three Kermit the Frogs: Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evilWriters are a supportive bunch, and advice offered is usually given from a place of truly wanting to help. And since many writers have spent their lives trying to be succinct (I’m not one of them), tossing out a pithy or tight one-liner in response to a question about how one should create a story is understandable.

Considering how many writing workshops, panels, and articles are dedicated to elevator pitches, cover copy, blurbs, etc. in which learn to distill an entire novel into a few sentences, or even just a few words, the instinct to respond in verbal-shorthand is unsurprising.

But just like an elevator pitch only hints at the depth of the story behind it, some quick, classic writing advice fails to cover the depths of what’s actually meant by that advice.

For example: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is probably the most confusing piece of advice new writers run into. I know the first time I heard it (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I was both confused and disheartened. Write what I know? I don’t know anything about living on other planets, or with dragons, magical powers, even elephants! I can’t write what I don’t have direct knowledge of? How does that work? Why do others get to do it? How do they do it? Why am I being told I shouldn’t?

Well here’s the truth behind that advice. “Write what you know” means write what you have learned by existing as a thinking, feeling being moving through the world. I means use what you know about:

  • love and pain
  • suffering and loss
  • the feel of rain on your skin
  • the smell of smoke on the air
  • the startling bite of a too hot piece of fried chicken on your tongue
  • the silence of a snowfall
  • the sound of a dog’s bark or a cat’s purr
  • the tingly feeling in your chest when someone you have a crush on walks into the room
  • the anger that tightens the back of your skull when you witness injustice

Write what you know means to not only write about things you have experience with personally, be that a location, or an event, or a skill. It means to write what you know within yourself and what you can, based on that knowledge, imagine for characters and scenes and events in your story. That’s the hidden depth behind those four words. Here’s hoping that helps going forward.

Happy creating!