Worst writing advice ever?

Rubin Starset, "Writing," Flickr, 2009
Rubin Starset, "Writing," Flickr, 2009

“Write what you know.”

This has to be the most commonly heard writing advice in the universe. It’s also the worst writing advice ever. Who actually came up with the idea that writers should do this?

My search for the origins of this idea led me to this from 1906:

The Secret
“Tell me, O Sire,” entreated the youth
Of the mind that had garnered rare treasures of truth,
“How did you come by this wonderful power?
Was it inherited—genius’ dower?
Can I e’er gain it?” The sage whispered low,
“Live, love, and suffer—then write what you know!”
—B. McM. Bell

This verse appeared in The Editor; The Journal of Information for Literary Workers, Volume XXIII, April, 1906, No,. 4, p 150. Mrs. B. McM. Bell was a songwriter, poet, and writer who makes several appearances in the pages of The Editor. If this is indeed the source, most modern iterations leave out the part that gives the advice some bite.

To be fair, there is an 1885 mention of the phrase in The Story of My Life, Volume 4:

[Louisa May Alcott] called upon Roberts, the publisher of all American good things, and said, “I want to write a story.” — “Very well,” he answered; “what kind will you take?” — “Oh, I can’t make up anything,” said Louisa; “I can only just write what I know.” — “Oh, you can just write what you know,” said Roberts; “then don’t stay talking here; go away at once and begin.” So she went and lived by herself and wrote, and in five weeks she brought him her “Little Women.”

I think we can probably discard that as the origin of this dread advice since the words are not given as actual advice, though it seems plain enough that readers of this passage might have come away with that notion tucked away. Write What You Know! And you, too, can be just like Louisa May Alcott. You have five weeks. Go.

Prior to 1906 (excluding the above quote) the phrase appears like this: write what you know about some subject, often something disgusting, such as, and I am not kidding, sheep scabs. I have no idea what sheep scabs are and I don’t really want to know. Even though we have sheep.

In 1914, however, we see the following delightful prose, which appeared in an essay about the dark spaces in a writer’s mind and is, indeed, writing advice. This may just be my favorite passage ever (excepting the NYT Book Review op-eds by Joyce Kilmer when he gets going about the evils of free verse).

The phrase appears in “The Other People” by Corra Harris, on page 56 of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1914 (FYI, the very first article in this issue is by Mark Twain, with illustrations by Twain himself. Yes, I got distracted.) These “Other People” are the characters running about in the heads of writers. Harris relates, in the words of another author whose publisher finds her work . . . boring:

“I have often felt that I could write one of those popular erotic romances where vice is clothed with scriptural language and virtue is a mean jade, if it were not for this old man,” she went on; “but whenever I get the heroine involved in a compromising situation, he looks up from whatever occupies him, sees the situation, and hastens to the rescue with some such advice as this: “‘Write what you know. That is always the truth at least. [ . . . ] Never permit your mind to go free. When you do, you are likely to have loosed a thief, a murderer, a charlatan, and an adulteress in the tale—rarely ever a saint. Do not urge your characters so fast. [ . . . ] Pardon the interruption,’ he will add, smiling, ‘but I saw that you were about to force the heroine into a compromising position quite unnecessarily. I do not like her, but she seems to be a respectable person. Put in a description of natural scenery.

Exactly! Write what you know about natural scenery because no one wants to read about a heroine in a compromising situation! That would be 50 Shades of Boring.

In The Editor, Vol 2, January 1920, p. 140., Dorothy Llewellyn Field writes, “But the most important thing I’ve learned is, to write what you know, and know what you write. It’s lots easier, and makes vastly better reading.” Again, there is a second part to the cliché that makes the advice considerably more practical. Indeed, know what you write!

I write historical romance, and I have never time traveled to the early 19th century. I also write paranormal romance, and I have never actually met a demon, vampire, or werewolf, nor do I possess magical abilities. Like Ms. Fields, however, I take care to know what I write. If I ever write about were-sheep, maybe I’ll give the villain were-ram sheep scabs even though it means I would have to find out what sheep scabs are.

But hold on, can we go back to the part about thieves, murderers, and charlatans? What the heck are they doing to that respectable young lady, and why doesn’t that old man like her?

Carolyn Jewel

Carolyn Jewel was born on a moonless night. That darkness was seared into her soul and she became an award-winning author of historical and paranormal romance. She has a very dusty car and a Master's degree in English that proves useful at the oddest times. An avid fan of fine chocolate, finer heroines, Bollywood films, and heroism in all forms, she has three cats and a dog. Also a son. One of the cats is his.

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