by Karen Wingate
One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever received was “Write what you know.” It was good advice, for it gave me confidence that I did have something to write about.
Like any adage, this bit of advice had its limits and left room for misinterpretation.
At first, I thought writing what I know meant I should write personal experience stories and illustrations about myself. To tell the truth, there are parts of my life I don’t want to write about. If a writing ministry means writing nothing but tell-alls, forget it.
Writing what you know is much broader than merely writing about your experiences. As writers, we have the pleasure of talking about subjects we feel most comfortable with, sharing the lessons we’ve learned in life and compiling information we gather through research and interviews. Big sigh of relief.
I’ve discovered that writing what you know is only a starting point in becoming a great writer. After twenty-five years in the writing industry, my best advice is this: learn to reach beyond what you know.
Here’s how you can do that.
1. Determine your starting point. Draw a coat of arms, then, in each of the quadrants, list your interests, hobbies, passions, and life experiences. This is your initial deposit in your data bank. Your job as a writer, is to expand your investment.
2. Learn to write out of your experience, not just about your experience. What do I mean by that? As I mentioned above, you don’t have to write about the painful events of your life. Instead, journal or list what life lessons you have learned from those experiences. Then research illustrations from history, current events or other people’s lives that validate those points. This will make your writing much stronger and more appealing. Use your own experience sparingly, just enough to show that you are not merely regurgitating information found on the Internet; you’ve lived it.
A national magazine wanted me to write an article on forgiveness. To share how I knew about forgiveness would be more private information than I wanted the public to know and would hurt members of my family. But, because of certain events in my life, I’ve learned some lessons about forgiveness. I asked myself, what event exemplifies the same principles about forgiveness that I had to learn. I came up with the story about the Amish schoolhouse shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. My readers could identify with the story because they had already heard the story. It became a powerful introduction to my article.
2. Observe. Become a people watcher. Listen to conversations. Pay attention to the news. Watch how people react. This is especially true if you write fiction. Increase your knowledge base by watching how other people react to life.
3. Learn to interview. This is an essential skill for any kind of writing. When I wrote devotions for a national company, I got to choose my topics from a theme list they provided. Of course, I chose themes with which I was most comfortable. It wasn’t appropriate to talk about myself all the time so I would think of someone who had a similar experience then ask to interview them. I discovered people are often more than willing to share their stories with a writer. I treasure some of those interviews as some of the most profound moments of my life.
4. Keep your audience in mind How would someone else react if they had gone through your experience? Would it be the same?
I’m visually impaired. I’m also a fighter. I quickly forget that not every visually impaired person will have the same stubborn streak that I do. So, if I write about visual impairment without thinking about my audience, I can quickly become harsh and judgmental, sounding, like I’m telling my reader, “I overcame, why can’t you?” By rubbing shoulders with other visually impaired people, I learn even more about other coping mechanisms, daily living strategies and humorous moments in the life of a visually impaired person. Suddenly, I know a lot more and can write with greater credibility.
To be a great writer, you must be willing to be a life-long learner. I think what I enjoy most about writing is the chance I have to learn about the world and the people in it. Admitting I don’t know enough about a subject propels me to learn and discover. The more I learn, the more I have to draw from and the more I have to write about.
That sounds like a win-win scenario to me.
Meet the Author:
Karen Wingate has written for The Lookout, Christian Standard, Clubhouse, Decision, Christian Home and School, and Children’s Ministry. She is currently working on her second novel, a historical fiction set in eastern Ohio. Check out Karen’s speaking topics and blog at www.graceonparade.com.