The Writing Rule I Hate

Broken PencilI need to begin with Diane Rehm.

See, one of my little obsessions is The Diane Rehm Show and I listen to her about four to five hours a week. I even get the podcast, and when I am helping one of my children to fall asleep, usually I am listening to her take a caller on my phone’s headphones. And, to let you in on a secret, when I play “interview” in my mind she or Terry Gross are the ones asking the questions. I’m not the only person who does this, right? You are out someplace and suddenly an interview forms in your head. Before you know it, you are saying aloud: “Well, Diane, when I first came up with the idea…”

Okay, that might have been too much information. Moving on!

Anyway, a few years ago she had on a popular writer. I can’t remember who the author was, but this author’s ego was proudly on the march. You would’ve thought she had written the next Ulysses and to add to the size of her enlarging head a caller called her, praised her, talked about how much she loves her books and then asked her what her advice would be for a new writer.

The author replied that the golden rule of writing is “Write what you know.” She then went on to explain why this rule is so important and as I began to roll my eyes and prepared to finally turn off the episode, Diane did something utterly amazing.

The grand Mrs. Rehm interrupted the author and debated the author on that rule. She asked how could that be true. JK Rowling, for example, doesn’t know any wizards and has never been to Hogwarts or have magic (Yes, Diane referenced Harry Potter!). If Rowling only wrote what she knew we wouldn’t have that wonderful series, Diane argued.

If I was in the studio that day I would have given her a hug and a kiss.

Webster’s Dictionary defines fiction as:

Something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically: an invented story.

Okay, that was really lame. I know that. It was like a 13-year old’s science report, but hear me out. If that is the definition of what fiction is why do so many start from a place where they write only what they know? Why is that considered healthy for a new writing mind, and why, honestly, is it considered fiction?

I blame writing teachers. That may sound mean, but educators like to help their students succeed (understandable); and also in the world of higher education, the more students studying in your field the more money coming into your department. If a writer comes in dreaming of being an author, the last thing you want to do is turn them away because they lack enough creativity. No, you are going to fight tooth and nail to keep them in the program, because that is one more body on your team. Save the hard truths for when they get out of school and are not paying the fees!

The problem is though when you step back, if you are simply creating a story out of elements you have experienced, things that you know, maybe even basing it on people you know (or yourself), that is not fiction. It is some weird hybrid fiction non-fiction.

And writing what you know is so gosh-darn easier than coming up with something outside of the box.  It’s too easy! It is like figuring out a code in a video game so you can skip a difficult mission. Where’s the fun and challenge in that?

It’s funny how many take this rule very personally. I am expecting comments and Twitter responses offended by me taking this rule on; they will be offended that I even dared to say it hurts the artform of fiction writing (Yup, I just wrote that).

How could they not be offended though?

I mean, if you are writing what you know, I am attacking in a way… well… you. Because your story is more than just a story, it is an extension of you, your experiences.  And, honestly, your story shouldn’t feel that close. Yes, I may be the first to call my novels children, and a bad review may make me stamp my foot and count to ten, but it is not like someone insulting me personally. It is different. There should be some healthy disconnect there.

Here are three reasons why I think this rule should be thrown away.

1.  It Limits Your Characters

I am a dude.

But I have also written three novels where the main character was a woman. Two of my novels were very much in the female mind.  Let me give you an example fresh off the presses…

A Jane Austen DaydreamMy new novel A Jane Austen Daydream is my attempt to re-imagine a new life for Jane Austen, putting her in an adventure that mirrors one of her books as compared to the facts of her life. It is a very creative endeavor with some really unique and new literary twists in it, including one I am certain has not been attempted in a novel before.

Now if I was living by the rule of write what you know, I would never have considered taking on a different gender, let alone putting myself in one of the greatest literary minds ever.

This is not what I know!  Yet, I did and I feel better for it.

2. It Limits Your Imagination

If you have been taught that the first rule is to write what you know, you are not first going to your dreams, daydreams, and imagination for ideas; instead you are looking around your reality. You are thinking of your friends’ experiences, maybe your own.

This rule is like the gateway drug and like a druggie with a problem, you might be ransacking people’s lives trying to find something to pay for that next hit. There is no better way to ruin a relationship than by putting someone you know in one of your works.

If you want to do something truly new in fiction, something unexpected, you need to abandon this rule.

When I look through my library of my other completed books from time travel adventures (My Problem With Doors) to twisted genre-breaking mysteries (Maximilian Standforth and the Case of Dangerous Dare) to a book about a fantastical superhero princess (Megan), I am glad I never limited myself to what I know. Yes, they are fun books, but also serious and literary as well. And if I had only prescribed to writing what I know, these ideas wouldn’t even have left the starting block.

3. It Limits Your Perception of Reality

Most of us live small lives. That is not a criticism, but a fact. Yes, we may travel some, but we don’t each have thousands of friends (no matter what Facebook or Twitter tell us) and really we will only live in a few different places in our lives.  We don’t have enough years on this planet to experience everything. It is impossible.

So if you only are surrounded by the same group of people, the same community, the same everything, how can you be expected to see the world from another perspective?  To break through this wall, you can’t write what you know, but go out and research, experience something different.  Yes, that would make it something you know—I’m going to say it before someone points it out in the comments—but you wouldn’t have even considered this if you were following the rule correctly. (Ha!)

I’ve said this before in my writing posts and I will say it again, but creating a novel should be the most difficult thing you do. This should be true if it is your first or your twentieth.  This is an artform, a skill and to do it right, it takes hard work.

Also, I can’t sing. That may sound out of the blue, but hear me out. I also can’t paint or dance or play the piano, but I can write. There is a certain piece of luck that comes with being a fiction writer like with any art form. It’s about the roll of the dice, some get snake eyes, some don’t. And just like the ability to sing in tune (again, I can’t do it), part of it just comes down to how we are each wired at the start of this experiment called life.

I am imagining again the protests. But the rule helps people learn, practice! Well, to them I have a better golden rule. One that should replace the misstep of writing what you know.

Read Everything and Experience Life

Your brain is a muscle and like a muscle learns and builds strength, your mind does as well. Reading everything you can get your hands on and getting out into the world, seeing new things, will build up the resources needed to come up with ideas and think outside the box of your reality.

Honestly, writing what you know is like a painter starting with a canvas with paint-by-numbers on it. That will never end up in a museum.

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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38 responses

  1. Writing fiction is a work of art. There are no rules. If you want to make up words, not use punctuation or capital letters, use alliteration or adverbs or adjectives – do it. Or do not do it.

    Rules are there for formality in information books. Not fiction. And I have started a sentence with a conjunctive coz I want to. And I use verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs…

    Each to his own. And I am with you on this one.

  2. I’ve adjusted this rule to: If you need to write what you know, then you should learn the world, Austen’s life, wizards, dragons, cat thought process, etc, before you write it.

    Then after one spends two years obsessed with a topic or world, then it’s really easy to write. 🙂

  3. Great post! I don’t care very much for this rule either. While “write what you know” might be good advice for beginners, after a certain amount of practice in the “comfort zone”, writers should be free to step out of their limits and explore the unknown. That is, after all, why many of us chose to become writers in the first place. What’s the point of having an imagination if we aren’t going to use it, right? 🙂

    I took an online creative writing course a couple of years ago, and in one of the writing exercise books required for the class, I found a very interesting exercise called “Taking Risks”. The idea is to write a first-person story about an event you will almost certainly never experience firsthand, the point being to practice writing what you don’t know. I used that idea to write a short story set in a show-jumping competition, since the only horses I’ve ever ridden in my life were for slow trail walks and beginner riding lessons. I had to do quite a bit of research to write it in accurate detail, and even then it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece (you can look through my blog for a story titled “Leap of Triumph” to see for yourself), but it was definitely fun imagining myself in the rider’s place! Now as an aspiring sci-fi/fantasy writer, I plan to make good use of “write what you don’t know” for my future novels! 😛

    • Thanks for writing!

      I had a lot to say on this topic. I was planning for a while to include a discussion on A Million Little Pieces by Frey as an example on “writing what you know” going too far. But edited when I realized it was making the post go too long.

      I’m always nervous about writing exercise books. They assume people learn the art or that people’s creativity works in the same manner. A book and course has to be as flexible as the students. Some need more attention, others need less. Some work great in lesson structure, for others it causes stress. And stress is never good around creative writing (it can cause writers block).

      Good luck with the writing. Cheers!

  4. Love it! I teach middle school English and have standards to follow. I value the structure and feel like I’m in a constant state of learning how the rules apply to our language and how it affects the ways in which we communicate with others (books, blogs, videos, podcasts, etc.). But when it comes to my own creative writing, I love to rely on music, illustrations, and dreams! So I dare say that our Imagination is much more fun than most of our life experiences, except when life imitates art of course!

    • Nice. Music is a big influence on me. And many times my ideas comes to me as an image that I need to form a story around. My last novel, which I worked on in 2012, had an artist as the main character and it was fun to come up with ideas for his creations.

      Thanks for writing!

  5. Great Post Scott. I followed that rule with my first novel. It will never see the light of day. I’m not sure that the rule is necessarily to blame though 🙂 Since then I have just tried to write stories I would want to read. I too have girls as my main characters. My latest work in progress, though, is something loosely based on a trip I took to Calgary. I changed and elaborated the events. I also made up a lot. I did find that using the experiences of the trip as guideposts helped make the story feel grounded in reality. What do you think of such an approach?

  6. Nothing much to add other than to say I completely agree. If you take the emotional core of your own experiences and remove them from their context, you can dress them up in whatever fantastical trappings you want and they will still resonate truthfully. Any ‘rule’ of art which is designed to limit creativity should not be taken too seriously. (>^-‘)>

  7. Excellent post. I, too, believe that advice might have been originally for a beginning writer. I paint, play the piano, as well as write. Being an artist, my novels (3) revolve around the life of artists. I use what I know, but the story lines are purely creative. In my memoir I wrote “what I knew”, straight from the heart as a memoir should be written. If we as creative people attempted to obey all the “rules”, there would be no “original” art, or writing, only carbon copies of what has been done before ad nauseum. Thanks.

    • Thanks.

      My bro can also play piano, and have always been jealous of that talent. Could never wrap my brain around doing two different things at the same time.

      Sadly, there are a lot of carbon copies out there if stories, like there is if most art. If there is one hit, copies jump out to join in the spoils. It’s like the wizard books after Harry Potter and the Vampire books after Twilight.

      The response from people to this post has been very encouraging.

      Cheers!

  8. I think ‘Write What You Know’ is fairly open to interpretation. If I had to apply it to my own writing, I’d not look at it in such a literal sense of knowing, but instead interpret it as meaning that one should write stories that they can feel confident telling. Especially in fiction, the things we all research, obsess over, and eventually write about are things we know because we created them, pieced them together from the depths of our brain. In the most literal sense, it would be impossible to write something you didn’t know.

    I won’t wax philosophically for too much longer, but anyone that sticks to any rule so firmly is not very creative, in my opinion. I also don’t think anyone under sixty should write a memoir (the purest form of writing what you know), but that’s just me :).

  9. I’m now trying to flip that “rule” around in my head. Something like: Know what you write.
    You know what I mean; You may not know what it is like to be female, but the process of writing fiction entails the growth of knowledge. Or something.

    • As I said in the post reading a lot helps a lot. For example, I might not be able to say I understand what the physical experience is like to be a woman, but I know how to create a realistic female character on paper. That’s the thing fascinating about characters and books as compared to reality (and could be its own post by itself). The differences between characters that we relate to and real people. To sum up, characters on paper, no matter how complex, can never be as complex as everyone is in reality. If they were, their actions on paper would feel to a reader sporadic, off putting and unpredictable. There is just too much that makes us what we are as compared to fictional characters. Fictional characters will always be more simple than reality.

  10. Pingback: Writing advice: don’t “write what you know.” Write what you’re passionate about. | www.seanmunger.com

  11. I’d say, “Write what you love.”
    Knowledge is a fickle, funny thing. You gain it, forget it, earn it, lose it, & all the while judge yourself (& others!) by its inconsistent yardstick. Sticking with what you know–both in writing & in life at large–yields only more of the same.
    But writing what you love is totally different. The things you love are vitalizing, engaging, & inexorable. When you write with that kind of passion, your enthusiasm become contagious. Rather than resting easy in what you know, you are driven to learn more & more about the things you love–so, ironically, ‘what you love’ comprises a huge bulk of ‘what you know’.
    In this light, I wonder if the original rule meant to encompass this spirited quest for new knowledge, rather than advocating a tragic & obligatory stagnation. As always, the steady march of time has generalized & truncated what once could have been a genuine adage into a parsed turn of phrase no more meaningful than, “It’s raining cats & dogs.”

  12. I have to disagree with you when you say that “writing what you know” is easier than writing “what you don’t know”, e.g. fantasy. You mention the great modernist novel Ulysses, the story of one day in the life of an ordinary Dublin man. Joyce wrote what he knew, and he knew a lot, but it wasn’t easy to write. He (and his family) suffered mightily over it. Another great 20th century novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhael Bulgakov, contains a great deal of very weird fantasy, and yet, he had profound knowledge of the truth that inspired it–and it was not easy to write. What you know, as csstarr notes (above) is what you know. And, as you say, it helps to learn as much as possible.

  13. Scott, while I generally agree with you, I think this rule is too often misinterpreted, or interpreted too directly. Like you said, if you want to write what you know, go out and learn it. I sometimes write stories about what I experienced as an English teacher in China, and if I’d tried to write about China before “knowing” it, they would have been terrible.

    But on the other hand, as you said, when you or I write female or transgendered characters, that’s something that we’ll (presumably) never experience. I don’t think the rule was ever intended to extend to that. And that’s because the rule probably should be: “Write what you can understand.” I’m writing a book currently about a man in his late 70’s, who has lost a son and is at the end of his career in a very high-pressure position. Can’t say I strictly “know” any of that. But I can sympathize, and I can project my own experiences – what I know and understand – into his world, to better comprehend what he is going through. I’m writing a character I can understand.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I could ever understand or “know” the degree of hate expressed by violent extremists. So probably I couldn’t write that kind of character very compellingly…

    Maybe we should just start a twitter/blog-wide movement to change that phrase from “write what you know” to “write what you can understand.”

    • Interesting. But writing what you can understand sounds limiting as well.

      I like to be challenged as a writer. Like I said in the post I wrote a book where Jane Austen was the main character. Not only was I trying to get in the head of a woman, but into the head of one of the most important literary figures.

      My fear is rules like this just limit creativity at the start of the career.

  14. Great post, Scott. In many ways though, we can only write what “we” know. All our experiences are human experiences, and despite wide variations in our world and our lives as children, writers only have their own eyes to look out from. It makes me wonder about the circumstances when the “rule” was first slung about. It was probably derived as a form of criticism for writing that maybe had no real soul to it. My own work needed my entire life before to conceive it properly, despite the fact that I write in fantasy genres. My historic fiction may have required a great deal of learning to familiarize my mind to the period, but after the detail and nuance is on the page, it’s the soul that carries the story. Besides, beyond punctuation and spelling, along with basic recognized grammar, rules alone can’t create good fiction. Experience and emotion and struggle create good fiction.

  15. I’ve linked to your blog a few times from Twitter, and oh my gosh…I LOVE THIS. I’m not sure I can even expand on that thought other than to say I absolutely agree. I have two in-progress novels that deal with situations I have never personally experienced, but if I let that stop me, the ideas die right there. I’ve learned a lot already through writing both books, and it is knowledge I might not have sought out otherwise. At the risk of being “mean” I think “write what you know” is one of the worst things you can say to an aspiring fiction writer. To go along with what you said, writing a novel should be difficult, at least to some extent. Writing only what you know like the back of your hand makes it easy, and unfortunately can also make it boring. Awesome post! 🙂

    • Okay, that is my favorite comment of the day! LOL.

      Thank you so much!

      I’m glad you liked it. Sometimes I worry I’m a little too passionate about writing. But sometimes it feels like the art of writing doesn’t get as much credit as the others. There is this idea that anyone can do it and we all have a book. I don’t buy it. It takes a talent to come up with crazy new ideas. Embrace it. Have fun.

      Cheers!

  16. With a lot of my fiction, it starts with a situation I may know a little (or a lot!) about but then I start asking “What if” and before you know it, I am off somewhere completely unlike any reality I have ever experienced.
    Of course, sometimes it is next to impossible to convince people that: 1) there was not “funny business” in your family (Annabelle), or that you didn’t hate caring for your mother (Alice in Wonderland) or that you really aren’t nuts (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)!

    • Thanks Nancy for writing. I have to admit I am quite surprised you named your book Alice in Wonderland. It still throws me when I see that. Are you sure it doesn’t bring up copyright issues in some European countries where things are tighter than they are here?

      • Every country is different (One of my favorite examples is how in our country there is a published “sequel” to Les Miserables and in France it can’t be published because the original Hugo copyright still stands), it’s all very sticky based on my understanding.

        And as book titles go, they don’t get much bigger than that one. Also, on a marketplace end, I would be concerned with it being lost in the mass of Lewis Carroll versions during searches if it was my book. It just seems overall very risky. I wish you the best, of course. it just really surprises me.

  17. Reblogged this on In the Wind and commented:
    I was recently talking with Tricia Fields, author of The Territory, Scratchgravel Road, and the upcoming “Wrecked.” She was saying that some of the worst advice ever is “writing what you know.” Her reasons were much the same as Scott’s. Two writers I respect saying the same thing? Might be some good advice.

  18. When I first heard the rule (in a writing class – surprise!), it sounded so constricting. With further thought, I decided maybe it is not so much about writing what I “know”, but about writing in a way that the reader believes that I know. As a reader, the books that fall flat are the ones where the author doesn’t get to know their characters well enough to draw me in. Whether the characters, storyline, etc. comes from something they know or straight out of their imagination (and research) is irrelevant. The bottom line, is that the author needs to draw me in with their words and convinces me that they “know”.

    • Thanks for responding. I’m glad you liked the post. Writing is difficult and people need to do the research and planning, especially if they are going to challenge themselves as a writer. Trust me, I know. I wrote a book with Jane Austen as a main character. LOL

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