“Write What you Know” or “Write What you Read”

write-what-you-know

Photo Credit: Ezine Articles

I have to be honest here. This was the first time since I adopted my Monday-Friday blogging schedule a few months ago that I wanted to just skip a day. Not that I think any of you would notice or care, but blogging is kind of important to me. Sounds stupid but it is. My reason for almost not posting today was because Team USA is set to play Germany today in their final Group Stage match right around the time this post will be scheduled to publish. I’m not the biggest soccer fan there is, but you bet your you know what that I’m a fan of Team USA. I was going to write about them and the World Cup and all of that, but I guess not.

Okay. we’ve all seen the writing tips credited to famous authors and also the advice that just seems to be from nowhere. I can’t tell you how many times in the last year I’ve read the phrase “Write what you know.” More honesty, I hate reading this crap. Write what you know. Well what if you’re like me and you don’t know a damn thing about writing or being a writer or plotting or any of that stuff? And your life experience is as ordinary as it gets.Then what the heck is the advice? “Write what you know nothing about?” That sounds about right to me. I’m sure y’all think I’m exaggerating when I say I don’t know anything about all this writing business, but I am telling you right now that I’m being completely honest when I say I’m clueless.

Let me repeat what I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Here’s how I write: I sit down. Write between 700-1500 words. Stop. Go about whatever else I’m doing that day or night. Write another 700-1500 words to finish up that chapter and move on. I’m not thinking about anything I know. I’m just writing whatever seems like it continues the story okay.

Now, I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything about “Write what you read.” Maybe it’s been said a bunch and I’m just not in the loop, but maybe it hasn’t. No matter if writers all across the world believe in this philosophy or not a single one, this is me. You guys should know pretty well by now that I read crime fiction all the time. I love it. I write it. Why is this? Because over the years i feel that I’ve read enough perfect writing in the genre that has given me some ability to write my own stories. I’m not saying I’m some expert or that my writing is any better than the next guy, but I am saying that I write what and how I do because of what I’ve read. That’s it. Plain and simple.

My question for you is this: Do you believe in either of these writing philosophies?

If you haven’t heard “write what you read” before, then feel free to go ahead and credit the saying to me. Ha. Just kidding. Kinda.

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130 thoughts on ““Write What you Know” or “Write What you Read”

  1. Since I am not and won’t be watching soccer or any other sport today other than conference room musical chairs, my response to you is this:
    The Rules of Writing
    1. Grab a pen and paper
    2. Sit down at a computer
    3. Grab a digital recorder
    4. Write or dictate your story
    The rules are, there are no rules. I know nothing about most of the things in my books. That’s what research is for. That is what my imagination is for. Writing what you know is good for non-fiction books, I guess. In your case, I do not advise doing any hands on research for your chosen genre. πŸ˜‰

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  2. I sort of follow the first one, right what you know. Like my novels are usually in a small town because I’ve lived in one for many years and can convey what its like easily. I don’t know what living in a big city is like and I would need to put research into it. Writing about things I have little experience with can be done but requires much more prep work. I do think writing what you read is a good idea but I do it without really planning it. I’ve learned much more from reading lots of good books than I realized.

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  3. Read outside of your genre has been the age old advice that I’ve seen. Your genre needs something new and a fresh eye, always.

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  4. I wrote a post about this recently on my blog. I don’t agree with it now that I have had time to process what it really means. People can learn things from their experiences, but we don’t really know everything. I think that successful writers mean to say, ” Write about your own experiences.” I love blogging everyday now as well, but I just write what’s on my mind or about my experiences.

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  5. When they say ‘write what you know’ it’s not about writing they are talking about. For instance, if you have never been to China, you can’t really write about it, but if you live in Plano, TX (just coming up with a place) then you know the area. If you are a shop clerk, you know what it’s like to deal with the public. It’s those kinds of things they mean. I know about photography, so I’m writing about it. I know about Ashland, OR, so I’m using it for a book. Heck, I know what it’s like to write, so I’m writing about a writer. Things like that.
    As per ‘write what you read’. Well, that is a valid point considering we all get inspiration from the books we read. I think the biggest thing along those lines is just to not use similar components of what you have read, IE, a friend I had at one time was writing a fantasy and she took large ideas from Lord of the Rings. Can’t do that, but you can learn writing style and learn a lot. That’s why writers need to read. Stephen King mentions it in his On Writing. And it’s because I read so much that when I was 14 I said to myself, I can do this. (18 years later, I’m not so sure……)

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  6. I’ve understood “write what you know” to mean, “Write what you know enough about to make characters and situations believable. If you want to write about something you know about, then go ahead and write. If you want to write about something you don’t know enough about, stop and learn about it–then go ahead and write.”

    To turn the question around, have you ever read something and realized that the author knew less about something they’d written about than you did?

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    • “To turn the question around, have you ever read something and realized that the author knew less about something they’d written about than you did?”
      Yeah, all the time. It’s my own fault. [tirade about archaeology deleted] If I didn’t have a head full of all this useless information (no one cares about grammar OR microbiology these days, right?), I’d probably have more room in my brain for important things like what I need to buy at the grocery store. πŸ™‚

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  7. I’m more of the second philosophy, but I have a couple stories started in genres and topics I’ve never read, so I’m not fully either one. I just write what pops into my imagination, whether I’ve read it or not, and whether I’ve experienced it or not.

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  8. Oh my goodness, I completely agree with you! I hate that saying ‘write what you know’. For one thing, I’m a teenager. There’s not a whole lot I know about life and experiences in general. I take so much from what I read, it’s ridiculous. This post pretty much put my feelings on the phrase into words.

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    • Haha believe me, being 22 hasn’t taught me anything. I don’t feel like my life experience has given me the right to say I “know” much of anything. I know I love sleep. And food. That’s about it. Haha

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’d say both. Take what you read and make it your own by adding in what you know.
    For example Dick Francis started his writing career after an injury ended his career as a steeplechase jockey. He read mysteries, he knew horses, and he combined them to write mysteries in which horse racing figures prominently. (Granted, he’s branched out some in later years.)
    John Grishem more or less invented the modern courtroom drama by writing mysteries from the point of view of an attorney–because he knew the law.
    Michael Crichton used his medical background to create “The Andromeda Strain” and brought a solid sense of reality to the novel, which he has continued by backing up his science fiction with solid scientific research.
    Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Jerry Pournell was a career military officer and military historian. Joseph Waumbaugh was a cop. Stephen King used his string of backbreaking menial summer jobs in Maine mill towns to make Salem’s Lot and Castle Rock real towns to his fans.
    Me, I’ve had a string of odd jobs–repo man, locksmith, bouncer, maintenance man, security guard–and I’ve taken from them a sense of how things work below the surface, the details of the work that goes into making sure the lights come on when you flip the switch and that the water that comes out of the tap is drinkable. I use that in my fiction and weave the fantastic together with the ordinary.
    Everyone’s life gives them a unique perspective, and changes the stories that they tell, You may not feel that you “know” anything worth writing about, but you know more than you think. The schools you’ve attended, the jobs you’ve had, even just the neighborhoods where you’ve lived gives you raw material to use in your stories.

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  10. The “short version” of my response to the “write what you know” thing, which I think a lot of people take too far: I write science fiction and fantasy, not autobiography. (If you want to see the “long version” answer, I blogged about this issue once: http://northofandover.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/learning-to-write-and-the-law-of-write-what-you-know)
    I have never been to another planet. All joking aside, I’m NOT a genetically engineered creature escaped form some mad scientist’s lab (and neither is my clone). I do not have a degree in astrophysics or microbiology. I have never piloted a starship. I’ve never even seen a dragon. I am not, nor have I ever been, a shapeshifter or a wizard. However, I’m not going to stop writing the kinds of stories I enjoy reading just because I don’t have direct personal experience to draw on for everything.

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  11. This is exactly what I did! I read about 700 UF books over two years and this is how I put my book together. I reviewed, I read other peoples reviews, and I worked out pet peeves and pressure points and what got people into a story, what made them put it down. Its the best research ever! Thanks for the post πŸ™‚

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  12. You know how my brain works by now, so stringing along a coherent sentence is hard enough without my brain exploding and now you suggest that others actually use philosophies out there while they write?! What’s happening with the world? Nope, because for me to be able to do those two things concurrently would just be too much, sheesh, who do you think I am, Einstein? πŸ˜‰

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  13. I don’t think its one or the other. Just be careful.

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  14. I write what I know (but reading is a huge plus). The book I’ve been writing off and on is about a sports writer (my former career) with a horrible boss (Who hasn’t had at least one of those?) who must deal with the murder of a football coach (and this is where I veer a bit from what I know because we had a tragic murder-suicide years ago involving an assistant coach who drowned himself after strangling another coach’s wife with whom he was having an affair). I read mystery novels and have been around enough cops and watched enough shows to pretty much get away with the little that I do know, but this is more about what happens when two people who normally wouldn’t be anywhere near one another suddenly get thrown together under special circumstances. It all really boils down to what you WANT to write.

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    • Hm. That sounds like some story.

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      • Maybe … lol. I stopped after Chapter 6 in 2009 and started on it again this year. I’ve finished 18 chapters, with 19 still in progress. I intend for it to be 30 chapters, but I get sidetracked easily. I only started writing one to see if I could actually finish it (I’ve started, stopped and eventually scrapped others in the past.).
        Then again, I could be way off base, if you’re referring, instead, to the murder-suicide. It was so tragic. I knew the baseball coach whose wife was murdered. They had two young children at the time, and I felt so bad for them. People even speculated whether he had anything to do with her disappearance until a vehicle containing his wife and the other coach (he strangled her and then drove the vehicle into a lake) was fished out of the Barren River Lake in 1999 (this was in Kentucky).

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  15. Haha I’m right with you… I don’t know very much about the industry, nor is my life intriguing enough to base any kind of story on. So I base what I do off of what I like to read.

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  16. I would think writing what you know would be easier than writing what you don’t know. It’s just not fair that some people know more than others. I’m on the short side of knowing, too.

    What you know could be abstract, like knowing people, specifically, certain kinds of people. For instance, when you create a character, you could know that character, or someone that is like that character, inside and out, so that you could portray accurately that character’s fears, hopes, and ambitions.

    We all know something well. Few can write a book without touching on something that must be researched. I’d rather write what I know than what I don’t know, if for no other reason that the amount of research required.

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  17. Just on that ‘write what you read’, it is an interesting concept and all writers should read lot. But I do have one incident that made me question that. A few years ago I wrote a fictional story and was very proud of it and gave it to a friend to read. She loved it too and picked out all the points of it that were good. She also had a penchant for writing and a couple of weeks later, she asked me to read her story she had written. I read it with pleasure, but one thing really startled me, though the story was completely different, the way in which it was written was as if I had written it. She had somehow used my voice. I didn’t know what to say.

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  18. I try to write what I want to read. I feel you have to target an audience of one if you want an audience at all. Also I find it a lot more fun to do the second draft if it’s something I like reading :b

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  19. Pingback: The Dedication Page (an update) | Write me a book, John!

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