“Write What You Know” and Other Bits of Writing Wisdom

If you are a writer, chances are you have had heard a few people say the following two lines: “Write what you know,” or “Find your voice.” On the surface, these bits of advice seem like common sense. Of course I would write what I know; I wouldn’t write about how to follow a bear feces trail in the forest if I didn’t know anything about tracking and hunting. Find my voice? Who am I, Ariel? I already have a writing style, and I like to make jokes. Jokes are my writing style.

If you are a writer, the deeper meaning of those lines of advice may or may not have already sunk in. It took years of hearing them over and over for me to realize what was really being said. But, I think I’ve finally got it.


 

Write What You Know

Everyone knows something, whether it’s cultivated through the crevices of textbooks, or gained through personal experience. What you know at this time will change. New memories might push out older, weaker ones or a career change might change your entire life philosophy. Whatever the case, the knowledge you posses today is not the limit. You can research to learn new things, then to write what you know. Even collecting stories from others’ lives different from your own still gives you the ability to craft a story from a reality other than your own.

At the beginning of the graduate school orientation I attended last week, the Dean of Students said to us, “Undergraduate school is when you learn, when you assimilate knowledge. Graduate school is when you become the producers of knowledge.” Writers learn and then produce, keeping the cycle of knowledge turning. When someone tells you to “write what you know,” they are telling you to become a producer of knowledge.

Find Your Voice

I used to think this referenced developing a personal style of writing, something that was distinguishable from other writers. Anne Rice has hers, Chuck Palahniuk has his, but our style is not our voice; it’s our content. Our voice is our soul and once we find the passion that fills it, we have found our voice. Passion and fascination drives the content of our stories, of our everyday conversations and lives.

I’m still discovering exactly where my fascination with dystopian stories and apocalyptic stories comes from, but I know the seeds to that redwood were planted over ten years ago, when I was introduced to “1984” and “The Matrix.” Maybe it was my upbringing; constantly fighting to gain a few teenage-appropriate personal freedoms does make one angsty. I easily connect with stories of an underdog fighting their way out of the choke-hold of oppression. While I was too young to be introduced to the likes of Daria Morgendorffer and Hard Harry in the 1990’s, they helped fill in the cracks during my early 20’s. Combine that with how heavily I have immersed myself in politics over the last 4-5 years, and that makes a cocktail of high hopes and deep cynicism. I found my voice (I think.) Now, I need to polish the speech.

Don’t Edit While You Write

This is the most helpful bit of wisdom I learned as an undergraduate, even though I still slip up from time to time. Editing your work while you write it is extremely counter-productive; it bogs you down in making something perfect before it even needs to be perfect. We are supposed to edit our first drafts, and our second, third, fourth, however many we need to get it right. We do not need to get it right the first time. We just need to sit down, bleed, and then scrap away the excess once it has dried.

Show, Don’t Tell

Anton Chekhov said on the matter, “Don’t tell me that the moon is shinning; shoe me the glint of light on the broken glass.” While I did not know who Anton Chekhov was in the first grade, this is one of the earliest pieces of writing advice that I can remember (although, Chekhov said it more beautifully.) The moon is shinning; great, but what does it look like through the characters eyes?

On the other hand, this advice can be ignored when appropriate. A former poetry professor of mine once told her class, “You have to know the rules to break them.” Is one of your characters not eloquent? Are you writing in the first person? I’d say that this rule can be broken to maintain a character’s voice. (Also, a the image of a “shinning moon” is universal.)

Don’t Make the Characters Know More than the Reader

This came up in one of my MFA classes the other night, and ignited a very good debate. We were going over a writing exercise that was only dialogue between two characters, and the content was genre fiction, a Greek God fantasy of sorts. There were a few names and references that were not directly defined, but some felt that it was enough to foster and understanding of the world and of the terms themselves. Others felt it needed more context.

Creating a genre fiction world in three pages of only dialogue is not an easy task. A fictional world works by the rules and boundaries set forth by the writer and sometimes needs an explanation without insulting the intelligence of the reader, whether through dialogue or action. Take a scene between Scuttle and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” for example: Ariel swims to the surface to show Scuttle a few things she found while exploring a shipwreck. She gives him a fork and Scuttle explains that it’s a Dinglehopper; humans use them to comb their hair. If we didn’t have the visual context of the scene — only dialogue —  we would have no idea what they are talking about.

When you write in any of the points of view, the reader is going to know exactly as much or more than the main character(s). The tricky part comes when we are creating terms, alien races, and other things the reader has never head of before and does not have a reference for. A strategy could be to have the main character ask a question about said “thing”, so both the reader and character remain with the same amount of knowledge. Or maybe the main character is encountering an alien race for the first time. Instead of only referencing the name of their race and calling it a day, add a little description so the reader knows that a ZZyzx is a three-legged creature with a hot temperament and regular nose bleeds. (ZZyzx is also an unincorporated city in southern California, ranking at a 9.5 on the Samantha-scale of best places to shoot a horror film. There’s nothing there — so creepy.)

In any case, genre fiction written in only dialogue is HARD.

Be Weary of All Writing Advice

Self-explanatory — do what works for the story.


What are some common bits of writing advice you have heard?

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