Bad Writing Advice

Lock picking - one of the many things I've researched

Lock picking – one of the many things I’ve researched

Write what you know.

That’s the writing advice many writers, including me, have received at the beginning of our careers. Really? Write what I know? Okay, let me think. What’s something I know and understand really well? There’s double sided accounting; I know the difference between a debit and a credit. I make great scrambled eggs. I know how to clean toilets.

Not a lot of story potential there.

The truth is I don’t know much. I don’t know how to pick a lock, or the symptoms of Lupus, or how spies were brought into occupied France during World War Two. Those are just some of the many things I’ve researched for my books. Fortunately, I don’t need to know details about a lot of things. I just need to know how to find the information I need.

That’s where I’ve put my effort – in learning how to research. I occasionally use books for my research. Sometimes I visit museums, or interview experts in a certain field. On occasion I’ve had the opportunity to visit a location to get a feel of a setting. But the main focus of my research is on the Internet. There is almost nothing I can’t find on the net. What did writers do before the age of the Internet? Research must have been a nightmare. I know a lot of writers bring expertise to their writing from former careers in law, medicine, the military, law enforcement and the like, but for many of us, the name of the game is research.

But there’s still a grain of truth in that old chestnut about writing what you know. The things I do know are emotional truths. I can understand how humiliating it must feel to be dumped at the altar. I can empathize with the character who doesn’t believe she’s attractive. I can feel the pain of a character who has a difficult relationship with her mother. I can understand those emotions, not because I’ve experienced those situations myself, but because, like many writers, I have the ability to put myself in that character’s shoes and feel what they would feel.

So I guess I do know a few things after all. Maybe the advice should be “Write what you feel” rather than “Write what you know”.

Are you writing what you know, or what you can discover?


Bad Writing Advice — 8 Comments

    • The truth of it is I really don’t know much. But I do have an imagination and an ability to empathize and put myself in a character’s shoes. That’s all a writer really needs. That, and a good Internet connection!

  1. When this topic came up, “write what you know” was the only real “bad” writing advice that came to mind, for the very reasons you’ve stated here. After all, JK Rowling didn’t know Hogsmeade or the Hogswarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry before she created them and she seemed to do okay. 😉

    • JK Rowlings’ work is pure imagination. She’s done a fantastic job of imagining a whole world. But there’s a lot a of empathy there as well. We can all feel the loneliness Harry Potter feels as an orphan. He and his friends feel a lot of the same things all teenagers feel. Rowling combined the things she knew and understood with the world she created to make a wonderful read.

  2. I have managed to work some accounting into my books, but you’re right, it’s generally not a subject most people want to read about! One of the things I enjoy about writing is the way it allows you to explore subjects you know very little about. But when it comes to feelings, I think you’re dead on – there you absolutely have to “write what you know” (or can imagine) or your work will lack authenticity of emotion.

    • One of these days I’m going to have to create a hero or heroine who’s an accountant. Maybe even a tax accountant, just for fun!

      I agree with you about exploring subjects. I’ve learned so much. One of my interests is World War Two history. There’s no end to the stories to be discovered there. But even in the everyday contemporary world there are many, many interesting things to learn and write about.

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