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Write What You Know? Or Not!

writing a rough draftIs 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?

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Rak Mentry

    Thank you so much

  • “…who said in a comment that she likes to write what she wants to learn.”

    Yeah exactly!

    Unless you have any interest in the topic (whether you are an expert or not), you shouldn’t go for it.

    That’s why it is always important to find YOUR niche first.
    Ron – SEO Copywriting Blog recently posted..Buy Shopify Ecommerce Shopping Cart Software…Or Not?My Profile

    • One of the things I like about the job title, freelance writer, is it allows me to pursue my interests as they change.

  • Really educative to me especially

    • Educative? How about ‘educating’ or even better, ‘thanks, I learned something.’

  • Totally agree with Paula — she and I have been singing the same song for a while. Write what you’d like to learn, write what interests you, write what catches your attention and won’t let it go.

    • And write what you’ve learned when the spirit moves as it were.

  • Definitely both. I remember when I was a young writer I was intimidated by the statement “write what you know”, because I really didn’t feel like I knew anything. I like the way you put that – that when you know the subject, you can just focus on the writing. I like writing about things that I want to learn about, but I think I like writing about what I know a little bit more. 🙂
    Valerie recently posted..4 Things to Include on Your About PageMy Profile

  • Ali

    If I were to write only what I knew (especially when I started writing) I would’ve written about nothing but bodybuilding and Computer Networking. On the contrary, I’ve written on a wide array of topics but these two…

    I write about stuff I like, and I write what my clients want 🙂
    Ali recently posted..Finally, Master The Art Of Writing Killer Headlines In 25 MinutesMy Profile

    • Ah youth, yes, we need to expand our horizons.

  • Good topic, Anne. I’d rather write about the things I want to learn. This makes writing more exciting, even if the research is grueling. But I’ write about what I know if an assignment has a tight deadline.

    • Sounds like you’ve got the best of both, Valerie.

  • @Wade: Indeed, having assignments often help getting me out of a rut. Getting holed up in an office is never healthy, even for a psychologist like me!

    Nice post, Anne.

    Winnie

  • First off, let me say, I love the word stultifying. I’ll have to borrow that one. 😉

    I’m like Sharon. I do a bit of both, too. Although my niche is healthcare, I stepped into global logistics – something I knew absolutely nothing about – because a former healthcare client moved to that industry and wanted to work with me. I love learning new things and it gave a real boost to my writing.

    I also did have a plan to write a post at least once a month about something I didn’t know about. I’ve slipped away from that and need to get back to it. Writing about things like Google+ or techie things that have been on my list of I need to learn about that helps me stop procrastinating.

    Obviously, I’m procrastinating again, so thanks for the inspiration. 🙂
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Friday Lite Posts of Olympic ProportionsMy Profile

    • Maybe I ought to take up once-a-month science writing… interesting approach.

  • I tend to think it depends on what you’re writing about or who you’re writing for. For instance, I think bloggers should write about what they know. However, if you want to write for someone else and get paid for it you’re obviously not always going to write about something you know. And people who write books and stories don’t always know everything about the subject they’re going to write on either, but that’s what research is for.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..Waiting For Social Media To Fail Is A Waste Of TimeMy Profile

  • I love having assignments. It makes me get out of my comfort zone and talk to people I wouldn’t have otherwise. Coming up with catchy ideas is one of the hardest aspects of the job.
    Wade Finnegan recently posted..How to Write Better ProfilesMy Profile

    • Hmmmmm, yes, assignments can mean getting out of the office… good thought, Wade.

  • A bit of both, Anne – and that strikes the right balance of easy and challenging writing work.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..How Important Is It To Have A Close Relationship With Your Editors?My Profile

    • lol, yes, although I’ll admit to loving the easy work 😉

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