“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.
As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.
There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.
Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.
Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.
As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.
While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.
It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.
When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.
I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.
I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.
©2016 Sara Codair