A week or so ago, I asked a bunch of writers to share some of the best advice they’ve received and how they’ve used it. At the same time I asked them to share some of the worst, the weirdest, or the least helpful advice they’ve encountered over the years.
I got a range of responses, as you can imagine.
“Write What You Know,” however, appeared more often than any other piece of “worst” advice. It’s the sort of advice that has been around long enough to pick up some baggage. Folks arguing for it tend to cite a need for authenticity and folks arguing against it tend to point toward the limitations of what a single person knows.
Below, a writer of fantasy, a writer of historical fiction, and a writer of anthropological science fiction each discuss whether writers ought to “write what you know” or “write what you don’t know” or somewhere in between…. That is to say, these three writers talk about how they’ve navigated the advice: “Write What You Know.”
Don Bassingthwaite is the author of The Doom of Kings and The Killing Song, among other fantasy novels.
Bassingthwaite: A high school English teacher wrote on a journal entry (which I’d written as a fantasy story) “Show me the magic of the real world.” There’s also the oft-cited advice “Write what you know.” No to both counts! Why write the real world if you don’t want? How do you write what you know when you write science fiction or fantasy? I say learn to write what you don’t know.
Johnny D. Boggs is the author of Killstraight and Northfield, among other western and historical novels.
Boggs: It’s kind of the cliche: Write what you know. OK, but I write historical fiction. If I write what I know, you’re going to have a really boring novel. I write about what intrigues me, what interests me, stories I want to tell. Now, I may not know a whole lot about that subject when I start researching, but I try to learn as much as I can to tell a compelling story. But when I’m done with that book and have moved on to the next project, don’t ask me anything about that earlier book. Chances are, I’ve forgotten most of it. Know it? I don’t think so.
Michael Bishop is the author of Brittle Innings and the editor of A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales about the Christ, among other works of science fiction.
Bishop: The worst advice I’ve ever received about writing is a little harder to pinpoint, but “Write what you know” has to come near the top. You see, the answer to writing about stuff you don’t know about does not lie in giving up trying to do so but instead in learning about what you don’t know either through direct personal experience or focused research.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.