The Blank Page is a new weekly series on Novelty Revisions dedicated to any writer who is just beginning their journey or starting again after a long pause. Check back every Monday for more tips and inspiration.
“Write what you know” has become one of those creative mantras that people tend to take too far. When we talk about telling familiar stories, we’re not saying writers should ONLY write what they know best. In fact, one of the best ways to grow as a storyteller is to craft narratives that aren’t all that familiar to you, at least at their start.
But this semi-infamous mantra does have an important meaning in the context of beginners. Aspiring writers have a lot to worry about as they’re in the very early stages of constructing the frameworks of their first tales. The last thing they need is to take on a story that’s so challenging and out of their comfort zone that they end up quitting because it’s a little too far beyond their current skill level.
“Writing what you know” is generally advice reserved for those new to this game. Which makes it a perfect place to start if you’re reading this now.
When I was first starting out as a writer, I tried my hand at some short stories and poems. But I was also fairly young, so my ability to construct complex, full-length stories was, as you can imagine, widely underdeveloped.
So I spent many of the first years of my writing hobby writing personal essays. They had multiple purposes — one, to help me deal with some of the tough things happening in my life at the time, and two, to practice the art of telling a story that always relates back to its audience and what they can gain from reading it.
But these essays were, unsurprisingly, about me, about the things I knew the most about and the lessons I was learning from those things. I ended up publishing one of those essays in a teen magazine, though due to the sensitive subject it addressed, it was unfortunately published anonymously (it’s fine — sometimes I reread it and I’m not bothered, because, let’s be honest, it was okay, but not great).
I wrote dozens of these essays — about myself, about my life, my hopes, my outlook on the world. Even some of my early blog posts reflect that framework. At the time, that was simply what I knew best. I knew what it was like to be me and to experience the things I’ve experienced. I was the center of all of that, because hey, what teenager isn’t the absolute center of their own world?
Obviously I’ve grown since then. I try my absolute hardest to make stories not about me, because for the most part, people don’t want to read about other people. They want to read about themselves. So for me, storytelling has become a strategic art — how can I take a familiar experience and expand it to relate to a greater audience?
That’s really only something you learn how to do the longer you spend writing … and the longer you spend living. It’s not often you see published authors that are young. It’s not because they aren’t capable of writing extraordinary prose or working hard. For the most part, it’s likely because they really haven’t been around long enough yet to have the kinds of perspectives on the world you have when you’ve been living in it for longer.
I sound super old right now, and trust me, I don’t like it either. People younger than me — you can accomplish anything you set your mind to! All I’m saying is, the more experience you have at being a human, the better your storytelling becomes.
It’s OK to start out exclusively writing about yourself and the things you know, because the only way to get better at writing is to do it, and you can’t let things like extensive research and the like get in your way of that. Yes, facts need to actually be facts, and you can’t write the same story a dozen times and just change the characters’ names. But remember, everyone starts out a little “basic.” That’s how it should be. Focus on improving your writing skills now, learn to refine your art as a storyteller later.
Beginning is hard. I know. I’ve been there. I was there for a long, long time.
For now, write about what you know, about what you love and what interests you, what gets you excited, what you can relate to the most. It’s not wrong. It’s just a foundation. Keep writing, and you will level up to more challenging endeavors.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.