Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Write What You Know

Writers of fiction are often told to "write what you know". I just googled that piece of advice to see where it came from (no clue) and found that it is rarely taken (or offered) straight. It is presented as advice you can safely ignore or, perhaps more charitably, advice you have to "outgrow". It's one of those classic rules of writing: everyone knows it but no one follows it. Or rather, they claim they don't need it.

I suppose that in the context of fiction it is sufficiently counter-intuitive to grab a writer's attention, at least for a while. Isn't a novelist, for example, precisely supposed to "make things up"? The injunction to write what you know is here an attempt to get writers to respect their imaginative freedom. Whatever they come up with must be compelling, and telling them that, even if they are writing about something that is supposed to have happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, it must be based on what they know, is a way of reminding them that the reader must be able to more than just understand the story—the reader must believe it. Writing fiction is a matter of constructing a convincing illusion.

This is sometimes talked about as the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief". It is fostered by the sense that the writer "knows what he's talking about", even when what is being talked about almost certainly never happened.

Academic writing, by contrast, is not supposed to activate the writer's willingness to suspend her disbelief. On the contrary, academic writers must write what they know in a completely non-ironic way, for a reader that is likely to skeptical, i.e., unwilling to suspend doubt. For this reason (in fear of this reader) academic writers sometimes write not what they know but what "is known", impersonally, universally, independent of the beliefs of the writer and the reader. The writer imagines that no one will question him if he sticks to the orthodoxy. We might call this the writer's illusion, rather than the reader's. A good academic style, I want to suggest, is found by making what everyone knows your own. If everyone knows it, you should know it too. Then write what you know.

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