So, you’ve finally decided to get down to it: you’ve got your favorite notebook or journal in front of you and a pen that flows exactly how you like. Or you’ve got your laptop open, the cursor on a blank document flashing at you impatiently, waiting for you to fill in the words. You’ve come to peace with the idea of putting your ideas, your thoughts, the little babies that are your sentences out there into the world for actual other human beings to read.
Now, what do you write about?
Maybe you’ve been a reader your whole life and are ready to break into the world of creating for your very own, or you’re an experienced novelist looking for something new to put on the page. Perhaps you’re trying your hand at a short story contest, or you’re taking a writing class where you’ll need to produce work in a short amount of time. No matter what the case, you’re going to need something to write about. And while some people come bursting onto the scene with ideas veritably exploding out of their head and other people need to find a starting point, eventually you’re going to need to pick something, whether that means narrowing it down from 1000 ideas (hi) or coming up with just one good one. So how do you do that?
Grab a coffee, y’all. Let’s break it down.
Should I “Write What I Know?”
Some people say “write what you know”. In fact, when it comes to writing, I think this might be one of the most common pieces of advice that people offer up, especially to young writers. Not necessary write exactly what you know—meaning if you’re a teenager who works at a movie theater, you don’t have to write only stories about teenagers who works at movie theaters—but to use what you know, the people, things, places, emotions, and experiences in your life to influence your work in some way.
While “write what you know” isn’t advice that makes zero sense, let’s take a look at the flip side of this for a moment. In college, I had a beloved professor who, in reference to subject matter for a project, often said, “Is there anything you can’t imagine?” And this is a good point, too. If you’re a writer, there’s a very good chance you already have a pretty vivid imagination. You can definitely imagine tons of things you have never actually experienced. For example, just because you’ve never been in love doesn’t mean you can’t imagine what it would be like to be in love. You may not have ever suffered the death of a parent, but you can imagine how horrible it would feel if you did. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you probably don’t know what it’s like to have magical powers…but you can sure as heck imagine what it might be like.
For a lot of genres and ideas (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.), imagination really is key. Veronica Roth probably doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a dystopian society. Stephen King most likely doesn’t know what it’s like to have an alien creature in his toilet, but it didn’t stop him from writing about it. There’s a super good chance Rainbow Rowell doesn’t know what it’s like to have a magical telephone that can talk to the past…I think you get where I’m going here.
So, do you write what you know, or do you follow your imagination? I say strike a balance…but a balance that tends heavily toward the imagination. The things we can imagine are boundless, which is so much more interesting not just for readers, but for writers, too. Don’t limit yourself or put yourself into a box by taking the advice “write what you know” too literally. You don’t have to just write what you know. You can use it as a jumping off point if you find it helpful, but trust in your imagination as well.
And research, where applicable. Tons and tons of research. You may not know what it’s like to be alive during World War II, and you may be able to imagine it, but if you’re going to talk about specific battles or weapons used during the war, for example, you better do your research and make sure you’re getting that part right, since those are actual facts.
That being said, don’t completely ignore the advice “write what you know”, because you can definitely use what you know to influence elements of your work, such as voice, style, or setting. For example, if you’re from a really small town, you know what it’s like to be from a small town. You know what that community is like, how people behave. You can use that to influence your work, and help readers get a genuine feel for what it is like (if you choose to set your work in a small town—which of course, you’re not required to). If you’re writing a character who has anxiety, and you have anxiety, you can use your knowledge of how that feels to help create your character and make them more relatable and real to your reader.
So while you can use what you know to help you’re writing, I definitely don’t think you need to write only what you know. I once saw a review on Goodreads of the contemporary novel Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam where the reviewer was literally complaining that Alam was a male writing about females, instead of writing about male characters, and my first thought was, “Why the hell shouldn’t he?”
You don’t need to write from a male POV just because you are male. You don’t need to write from the POV of a twenty-something just because you are twenty-something. That’s just ridiculous. Using what you know to help you is one thing—but for the love of all that is holy, don’t let it control you.
Definitely Write What You Like
Write what you like. Or what you love. Or what you’re passionate about. Either way, make sure that no matter what you’re writing about, it’s something you truly care about.
I know this sounds like ridiculous advice. This sounds like something that’s so obvious I shouldn’t actually have to say it. But you’d be surprised. There are plenty of people who write about things they’re not passionate about or don’t like just because they think it will sell, or they think it will appeal to a certain market they want to target, or they think it will be popular. People might not write about what they love because they are worried others won’t like it or they’re afraid of criticism, or they think their peers won’t approve.
And to all of that I say: who cares. There will always be someone who doesn’t like what you write. There is someone reading this post right now who doesn’t like it. Everyone doesn’t like something. No one likes everything. There are even people who hate J.K. Rowling. I mean, I don’t know why. But they’re out there, and they have that right. Don’t limit yourself because you’re afraid of what others will say or because you just want to tap into whatever is the popular “trend” right now. For one thing, by the time you’re done writing, editing, and publishing an entire novel, that “trend” might be over, so it isn’t even worth it. But more importantly than that, you won’t be happy. If you’re miserable every time you sit down to write, you know what will eventually happen? You’ll stop sitting down to write. You won’t care about your project anymore because you didn’t really care about it to begin with. You have to think to yourself, is this something I would want to read about? Is this something that matters to me? If you wouldn’t be excited to read it, you definitely shouldn’t be writing it.
So above all else, write about something you love. Write about something that speaks to you. Write about something that really is in your heart.
Inspiration Can Come From Anywhere
Finally, when deciding what it is you want to write about, remember that inspiration can come from anywhere. Really. Anywhere. It could come from something else you read that makes you think of something you want to do. It could come from a song you hear, or a photograph you see. It could come from a conversation you overhear while standing in line at the grocery store. It could come from a historical event or a news story, things going on around you or happening in the world. Be open minded, and be open to inspiration, because you never know where it will come from. It’s just a matter of being open to things around you, and thinking about them. That’s one of the funny things about writing—a lot of it is just thinking. Some days you’ll have a total breakthrough or an amazing idea, and nothing physical to show for it—because you were thinking about it. Sometimes you might spend all night thinking about a plot for your book, but to the outside view it looks like you did nothing, because people can’t see all the craziness happening inside your brain.
But don’t worry—once you get down to work, all that inspiration and thinking will pay off, and you’ll eventually have something in writing to show for it.
So, to sum things up: write what you know if you want, but you don’t have to. Use your imagination, because it is limitless and amazing. Write about something you care about and are passionate about, and keep yourself open to inspiration.
And when all else fails, remember these eternally wise words from Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
So what about all of you? What are you writing about? Do you have any advice for deciding what to write about? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3