Is there a beginning writers course in the world that doesn’t tell students to write what they know?
I doubt it. But what, exactly, does that mean? And is it a good idea?
I think the admonition actually means a couple of things.
First, it can jar a new writer out of thinking that nothing interesting happens to them, or that they have nothing to say that anyone would want to hear.
Everyone’s boring and interesting
In truth, everyone’s life is boring and everyone’s life is interesting. This is true if you’re literally a rock star or some other famous person, or more typical.
Let me use my ancient secretarial experience as an example – today I would be known as an administrative assistant. Much of what I did there was so routine it was stultifying. But the way I made an office look down right glamorous by getting the cold blue fluorescent lights replaced with warm whites because the blue ones made my head hurt could have sparked both a decorating article and a health article.
Raising my kids was full of the mundane, but I was able to take my experience as a single parent and turn it into a weekly Q&A column for three newspapers for 18 months.
Do you see what I mean? I wrote what I knew.
The other reason for the rule is that if you’re writing what you know you don’t have to do much, or even any, research. You already know the subject and can focus on the writing.
Of course, there’s a knack to spotting interesting things in your life to write about. I think the easiest way to learn that is just to thumb through a copy of Writer’s Market. I find it impossible to read a bunch of market listings without coming up with ideas, and usually they are ideas that are based on what I already know.
On the other hand
Some writers take another approach. I think it was Paula Hendrickson who said in a comment that she likes to write what she wants to learn.
That too is an approach that can work well. Sure, it means some research, but it’s digging deeply into something you want to know more about anyway – a double payoff as it were because you’ve got material for an article and added to your own knowledge base.
Like so many things in this wacky freelance writing game there is no one way to do anything.
Writing what you know can be a good strategy, so can writing what you want to learn, and so can writing by assignment.
In truth, most writers mix it up. There’s probably no way to write about anything without drawing on your experience – which is part of writing what you know.
How do you approach writing?