“Write what you know.”
It’s a common enough bit of advice. And it’s true, as far as it goes.
It means to pull material from your own life and your own experience. If you’ve grown up all your life in a small, Midwestern village, then you hardly have the experience to write about what it’s like to grow up in the rough, inner-city streets of LA. You don’t know how much of LA is glitters and how much is grime. You don’t know what it’s like to dodge drug dealers on your way to school, or even if they really do. Instead, you know what it’s like to be surrounded by fields, whether they roll or whether they stretch out in a flat line to the horizon. You know if the dusty roads are dirt or gravel. You know the smell of a pigs or cattle or sheep. You know the flick of horses’ tails behind wooden fences.
There is value in writing what you know, whatever that may be.
“Write what you know” also means to write from what you learn and what you study. You don’t have to stay in your rural Midwestern village, writing about cows and farmers and all those who make up your lively community. You can travel and experience different lives and write from the outsider’s point of view, as one who has seen and experienced, but not grown up in those worlds away that you visit. You can go to college or work a job and learn a trade or industry, and write about that.
As a journalist, you write what you know by working your beat, gaining knowledge through research, making contacts, and experiencing the area about which you write. As a magazine writer, you write what you know by following your areas of expertise, expanding on your knowledge, making contacts, and writing from the sum total of all you have to offer. As a copywriter, you write what you know by studying marketing, and your particular niche, and studying the industries your clients work in, and by studying your clients’ customers and gaining insight into what sells, how it sells, and why it sells.
But there’s a whole world of writing beyond what you know.
Writing what you love involves writing what you know, but also writing what moves you. If what you love is beyond your expertise, you either tackle the subject matter from a different angle or you build your expertise until you’ve gained enough credibility to reach your audience.
Writing what you love involves a passion greater than what is simply known, and opens up worlds of possibilities to you that may have seemed out of reach before. A parent who loves children with autism, as I do, and wants to make the world a better place for her children may learn a great deal, and write from an authority that combines personal experience with acquired knowledge. The knowledge isn’t the source of credibility, but supplements and strengthens the parent’s natural credibility. A writer who loves fantasy fiction may create entire worlds and peoples, informed by history and anthropology, but builds worlds nobody knows, because they are unique from anything that has every really happened—a world of magic and creatures that do not exist in real life. A science fiction writer can write about the far-flung future in a distance galaxy. A mystery writer can imagine a crime more terrible or more complex than any she has ever read about. A nonfiction author can write a book that combines knowledge and experience not otherwise accessible, by compiling resources from alternative sources that are rarely sought.
Love and passion is an amazing thing that can turn the hard work of writing what you know into the joy of writing what you love. Don’t just “write what you know.” Write what you love!
***Please note that I will be taking a week off. My next post will appear on Tuesday, January 3, 2012.***