Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bad Writing Advice

by Marcus Sakey

There’s an axiom that writers should “write what they know.” It’s one of those nuggets of threadbare wisdom that has probably screwed up a whole passel of aspiring authors:
“Write what I know? Okay. Well, I’m a administrative assistant with a pug, so I’ll write about an administrative assistant with a pug…who solves murders!”
If that’s the book you want to do, great. But don’t get suckered into it.

“Write what you know” isn’t terrible advice; it’s just been elevated beyond its inherent value. It’s like a solid character actor who reliably nails bit parts. That’s valuable, but it doesn’t mean they should carry the starring role, and “write what you know” has been given far too much weight.

Here’s what I recommend. Forget “write what you know.” Replace it with these three statements instead:


“Write from the inside.”
Consider the person who is serving as your point of view character. Describe the world, and their reaction to it, according to what kind of person they are. The same place, event, or individual will look very different to a bubbly high-school cheerleader than it will to a world-weary journalist. Different even to a man and a woman. Think about those differences, and exploit them in your writing. That way you not only paint a more vivid scene, you define the character at the same time.

And remember cultural and temporal factors. Medieval characters aren't disgusted by open sewers, modern travelers are more interested in their seat assignment and free drink than the wonders of aviation, and no one on Star Trek thought tricorders were particularly neat.

A hamburger is a different thing in Texas than in Mumbai.


“Learn something about what you’re writing about.”
AKA, research. Depending on your topic, that might mean riding with cops, reading histories of the Boer Wars, or taking swimming lessons. You should always try to get close to the things your characters are doing, especially if it’s a major part of their world.

The caveat is that research isn’t the same as writing. Don’t let research get in the way of page count. Most of us aren’t writing Clancy novels, where the info dump is part of the fun.


“Write what you know…about people.”
This is the most important component. Don’t worry about applying the explicit details you’ve learned in a job, or a hobby, or a religion. Just because you’re 20 doesn’t mean you can’t write about someone 90. But every experience you’ve had, and most especially those involving other people, has some impact on the way you write. That’s good. Use it.


One of the central goals of storytelling is always to render life to the page as accurately as you can. Even if you’re writing the most fantastical piece of magical realism, you should still be trying to capture accurate truths about the way people think and act. Without that, you got nothing.

5 comments:

Pete said...

Flannery O'Connor once said: "I write to discover what I know."

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Those are excellent Marcus. I would add one other which is probably related to #2: "Don't write what you know, write what you are curious about."

Doug Riddle said...

Great post Marcus.

I've always taken the Write What You Know axiom to not mean so much your job, etc....but what you know about human nature and emotions.

Looking forward to seeing you at Aunt Agatha's this weekend.

Christopher said...

I just finished my first book. It involved death, the end of the world and people eating people.

My wife is very happy that I don't know about any of that stuff.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Wonderful piece, Marcus.