Advice to Ignore


We’ve all heard it, read it, even espoused it over the years. “Write what you know.” That has always been the prevailing rule of thought when it came to writing. Unfortunately, I’m proof that this piece of advice is hogwash to put it nicely. Raised in the city, I attended a high school that would be described as rough, and have always had access to the luxuries city living provides. Cultural and sporting events, theaters within a ten-mile radius of me in all directions, grocery stores on every corner, and restaurants more frequent than that. And our own sports franchises, even though they lose more than we’d like.

When I began writing short stories, I wrote “what I knew”. Taking on  city life and the people I understood best. This should have been a total win for me. Imagine my surprise when my professor was totally underwhelmed. Well, if I wasn’t supposed to write what I knew and I couldn’t write what I didn’t know, where did that leave me? It was my second semester of grad school and one of my packets came back with the hope on my professor’s part that things would go better with my next packet. Ouch! There was a glimmer of good in that packet. In a short story that wasn’t quite working, he pointed out to me that I had found my real writing place. Apparently according to him, my writing came “alive” when I wrote about “small town life”.

Me? Someone who has never lived in one? Who has no clue what that’s like? What was it about the story that made it sound like I did? I spent time in a small town. As a writer, I observed life. I took what I witnessed and applied it to characters who could live anywhere. After all, we share human traits regardless of where we live.

That nugget of advice, “Write what you know” isn’t really accurate. What it should say is “Write what you want to know.” That small town fascinated me. It led me to want to tell their stories. I encourage you not to accept all writing advice without your own study of it. If you don’t know something, and you want to write about it, we live in an age where the information you need is right at your fingertips. Take advantage!

What writing advice would you suggest writers ignore?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Advice to Ignore

  1. Kay P. Haas

    I totally agree! I used to tell my creative writing students to write what they could find out, and, of course, as you suggest, they found out what they wanted to know!

  2. C.D.Jarmola

    Ignore advice from people who start by saying “I don’t read many books, but you should. . .”

  3. Ignore whatever –
    -doesn’t work for you
    -keeps you from expanding your skills
    -interferes with your imagination
    -assumes that there’s only one right way to do things.

  4. blueghoul

    The thing about “write what you know” is that it’s so very vague. The way you used it, then it’s something to ignore. Writing precisely what you know, that is. That would be practically impossible in fantasy, or in most books for that case. In a different sense, to incorporate the things you’ve experienced, not necessarily to a T, but rather, just bits and pieces. Maybe I’ve never broken a leg, but I’ve been in pain. I know what it’s like to bleed. To fall. To panic, and if not, I could imagine.

    In a different sense, if I’ve never been in love, I’d be difficult to write about it. But I can draw on certain experiences, certain little quirks that I’ve found in some people, little sparks of emotion I’ve felt before and to build on that. I could imagine what it’d be like from the little things I already know, from what I have experienced. Write what you know in terms of what you’ve felt, the things you’ve gathered in just plain old life experience and grow on that. That’s sort of how I interpreted it. If any of that makes sense…?

    I love what you said, though. “Write what you want to know.” It’s simple, but it definitely works.

    Ah, um, as to advice to ignore…I’d say the same applies to all of it. To take everything with a grain of salt. Sometimes, to break the advice completely, it works wonders. As to others…there’s a reason why the advice was there in the first place. Just…to take everything, to be careful of everything and ignore it when the time’s right, I’d say that’s just sort of my two cents on that.

    • dawnall

      I agree. Too much advice is taken at face valued without taking into consideration whether it works for that author or that piece or that character.

  5. Maybe not ignored, but I don’t subscribe to the general truism that you should just sit down and vomit words onto a page when writing your first draft. I just can’t do it. I have to know that the story is going somewhere and that it makes sense. If something doesn’t feel right, I can’t let it be, I just delete it straight off. Which means my first draft now only needs some tweaks and added depth to be actionable.

    I understand that some people do have to just write or they’ll end up editing the whole thing. But I write a few chapters a day, re-read and tweak a bit before sending them to my CP, and then get onto the next bit. And that got me through my first draft in six weeks (including two weeks where nothing got written because I had a freakout).

    Then I nearly edited it out of existence because “everyone says the first draft is supposed to be a pile of crap”. My CP pointed out that I’m too anal for it to be a pile of crap. Beta readers have borne her out.

    As you say, people should examine the advice they’ve been given and genuinely decide for themselves as to whether it is right for them or not. I think a lot of pain and time (and crappy first drafts) would be saved this way.

    • The first draft of a book by an inexperienced writer is almost certain to be a pile of crap. Professional writers can’t afford to turn out a crap first draft. In between those two extremes, there’s practice and learning.

    • dawnall

      No doubt. Some people like to work that way. I know I edit as I go along and it does make for a slower first draft, but I prefer it that way.

  6. Great example of bad advice,Dawn. I always tell my students to “write what you can convince the reader you know.” If you “wrote what you know” we’d have far fewer murder mysteries (only from murderer-writers), fewer sci-fi or futuristic novels (unless you had a working time machine), fewer historical novels (unless on your last birthday you celebrated your 1,00th b-day), no novels written from the opposite sex pov, or from an animal’s pov, or… just about anything! Incredibly bad advice. Other bad advice is to not use adverbs–adverbs, as John Gardner said, are one of the “sharpest tools in our writer’s toolboxes.” It’s poor and lazy choices of adverbs that don’t work. Another incomplete and therefore bad piece of advice is to “show, don’t tell.” Well, sometimes exposition/summary is exactly what should be included. If one never “told” in a novel, we’d end up with a… screenplay. There are lots of other examples like these. It comes from people trying to shorthand advice and leaving out the entire advice so that it fits on a bumper sticker…

    • dawnall

      Right on! That whole show, don’t tell has destroyed a lot of good writing. People forget that somethings are just better in narration.

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