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Write What You Know? Maybe Not

June 17, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 17, 2011

Writing wisdom used to counsel write what you know. Then the experts said write whatever you want to write.

While I understand both viewpoints, my suggestion falls in between. That suggestion? Write what moves you.

Thus you could write about a topic you know from every angle, a topic you love. Yet, you could also write on a topic that you loathe, something that incenses you each time you hear about it.

Or, in your next project, you could feature a topic you don’t yet know anything about, choosing a subject that interests you, one that’s got your curiosity twitching.

What each of these suggestions has in common is that they focus on using topics that tempt your passions.

If you write about your passions, your fervor shows in the stories you create.

Writing about our passions affects our word choices—we’re often more explicit and detailed and creative when the topic is something that moves us. And again, this can be something that moves us on the positive side or the negative side. Many people harbor truly grand passions for subjects they hate.

Also, when we write about a subject that keeps our emotions revved, our phrasing is often free flowing and easy. It often has a different rhythm than when we’re writing about everyday concerns.

Writers are often more convincing when the topic is one that moves them. This may be because they’ve spoken about the topic before and have ready arguments and facts to back up their position, or perhaps because the passion simply can’t be contained.

Yes, of course you can write about topics you’re less than passionate about. You’re a writer with skills that you know how to work. You don’t have to be emotionally moved or motivated to write.

But there is a difference in the writing when you care about the subject matter.


I’m using the terms subject matter and topics quite broadly. I’m including genre and character professions and political viewpoints and locations for setting and anything else you find in novels. Even a particular personality type for a character might be affected by your zeal for or against it.

So, if you write political suspense, a cozy mystery might not float your boat. You might have trouble with word choices and sentence construction and rhythms. Even if you had a handle on the genre in general, you might truly have a hard time crafting sentences that fit. If the genre doesn’t challenge you or satisfy in some way, you’re not going to bring to your story the same zest that another writer would bring to his.

If businessmen in suits have your eyes glazing over, don’t tap a businessman as the hero in your next romance. You may not be able to make him appealing to your readers.

If you don’t like him, how will they? Your distaste will show. Maybe not in what you have written of him on the page, but in what you’ve not written. If you don’t like a character type, you’re not likely to go out of your way to find the strengths and positives of a character of that type.

You won’t make him a rounded character. And that lack will affect the reader who’s looking for more than what you’ve given.

Do you love foreign locales but find your own backyard (or city or town) dull? Then don’t place your story in your home town.

I’m not saying you can’t try something new. You might find you’re much better at writing cozies than political suspense. And you just might want to try something out of your comfort zone as a challenge, to improve your skills. Yet you should know that some topics and subjects will be both easier and more enjoyable for you. And those topics will be those that mean something to your heart or your mind.

Maybe you’ve just discovered a city or hobby or profession, something new to you that has you jumping on the Internet looking for information on it. Maybe you’ve decided you’re absolutely fascinated with South Africa, with its history and culture and geography.

Take that fascination and put it to work. Set your next story in South Africa, at least for a few scenes. Indulge your fascination while it moves you. Let the joy of discovery seep into your writing and lead you to new discoveries and fresh writing.

Your interest in topics new to you will be apparent. That attraction will have you using words or phrasing you’ve not used before, at least not for subjects that aren’t as interesting to you. You’ll search for just the right word to convey a character’s love for South Africa’s veld or maybe words for another character’s distrust of a man of another race. You might find yourself looking deeper for just the right phrase to portray a sunrise at Table Mountain or the power of the sea at the Cape of Good Hope.

Or maybe you’ll need words to describe a man’s emotions as he stares out into that sea, imaging what life is like on the other side of the world.

Since South Africa is new to you, you’ll likely be looking for fresh phrases to convey your discoveries. You won’t want to use words that you’d use for Dallas or London or Tokyo. You’ll want original words that portray only this place and this place only in the time and circumstances of your story.

With your passion leading you, your writing can take on more beauty, more strength, and more allure for your readers.

Of course, you don’t want to overplay your enthusiasm. We’re talking novels here and not travelogues or opinion pieces. But use that enthusiasm for a subject to influence your fiction. Or use your dislike for a topic. Allow disdain to move through a character and drive his actions. Use disdain—or loathing or love or fascination or fear or any of your passions—to color your stories and add dimension to characters.

Put the power of what moves you into your words and your stories. Let characters be moved in the way you’re moved. Or simply use your passion to infuse characters and locales and subject matter with vibrancy. Make your worlds and the people in them pulse with life that will resonate with your readers.

Don’t think that you have to write with passion. Because there are days when passion for anything, much less writing, may be beyond you. But you still have to write.

Instead, write from passion. From those places in your mind and heart that move you. From your dreams. From your fascinations. From the deep places stirred by imagination.

Write not necessarily what you know, but what moves you. What tempts you. What pushes your own buttons in some way.

Write so your readers will be stirred or agitated or excited or challenged.

Write life into your stories.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

2 Responses to “Write What You Know? Maybe Not”

  1. Mr Edd says:

    If I may add to this Philosophy

    Take you of of fun and you get… Fn

    Why do we write?

    Cos we love words. Words that give us joy, sadness, make us laugh or cry, be astonished, angry, sympathetic. Words that move the unmovable or stop us dead in our tracks. We make sentences that don’t confine us behind bars. That give us flights of fancy or examine the minutia, expand our universe or study the navel.

    What do we read?

    Stories that lift the soul, that amaze and teach us, give us knowledge or ignorance if the facts are wrong. That take us away from the humdrum, escapism or drama that says some are worse off then we are, which makes us feel better. Escapism from those sentenced bars of our own making. We read what we like but loose out by missing that which we don’t like with smugness.

    So what do we write?

    About kitchen sinks, about falling in and out of love, about relationships that break down/up, about old age with experience about youth and lack of it. About greed and avarice, giving and taking, “There is much happiness in giving” said the Lord. That depends on what is being given. Meet out revenge for an unmitigated mistake. Apologies for an unknown error. silence of words while the feet embarrassingly shuffle.

    Why does?

    Prose rhyme with pros, or time with thyme. or theirs with there’s. To confound, confuse and befuddle us. to teach us that we don’t know what we are saying. To remember to stop that sentence with a full stop…

    No, to see that it really is a period which implies there is more to come.

    Now put you back in fn


  2. Edd, I love the way you expressed that writing doesn’t confine us behind bars but gives us freedom. Indeed, we can go anywhere and do anything with our words.

    Thank you for adding to the discussion.