Research the Hell Out of It

“Write what you know” is standard advice in creative writing programs. While earning my B.A. in English, I experimented by writing about ballroom dancing and piano (things I knew) as well as pregnancy and war (things I didn’t). My most successful stories featured what I knew: I described ballroom dance competitions with more plausibility than a helivac scene in Eastern Europe.

So what I’m about to say might sound counterintuitive: forget about writing what you know.

My novel follows a dirt biker struggling with gender identity and anger issues in early high school. When I started this project, I thought I’d breeze through it; I had my motorcycle license, so I already understood the basics (shifting, braking, safety, etc.). Riding a dirt bike was probably the same as riding a motorcycle, except off-road. No biggie. I had this.

Fun fact: nearly everything in my first draft was factually incorrect. Yes biggie.

At this point, I could have scrapped the story. With so many errors, a second draft meant starting from scratch. Instead, I googled dirt bike stats and motocross tracks. I emailed the racing organization NETRA, which connected me with rider Taylor Johnston. I met her after a local hare scramble (a dirt bike race through the woods) and she let me ask a few hundred questions. I read as many books about dirt bikes as I could find, ranging from The Hardy Boys to Leigh Hutton’s Rev Girl.

Instead of scrapping a story I loved, I researched competitive and social dirt biking until it became something I knew. I decided to learn.

“Write what you know” is great advice, especially for beginners who don’t need the added pressure of research on top of learning how to write effectively. This advice, though, can be limiting. Attempting to write a book — or succeeding at it — involves smashing limitations, not adhering to them. I cannot allow my infinitely small amount of knowledge to cap my writing; I don’t want to remain stuck in ONLY what I currently know.

As of November 2015, I’m approaching the final stages of writing my novel. Even if my story never leaves the slush pile, I love it. Thanks to my research, I put forth my absolute best work. Who can ask for more than that?

So here’s my addendum to this classic piece of writing advice: Write what you know. Research the hell out of what you don’t.

What experiences have you had with this advice? Do you find it limiting, helpful, or perhaps both?

23 thoughts on “Research the Hell Out of It

    • Thank you! 🙂 And for all of the help I received from various members of NETRA, thanks again! As an “outsider” with only a cursory knowledge of dirt bikes, I was extremely impressed with how welcoming and kind everyone was. You rock!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Love this! I never really liked the “write what you know” saying. I understand what people mean when they say it, but it gives the impression that you can ONLY write about things you know. (If that were true, fantasy is in big trouble 🙂 ). Lots of writers write about things they don’t know, but they research it so the stuff they don’t know about comes out smoothly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed this and think it is actually really good advice. Sometimes people are scared to try something new, but if you don’t try and look at new things it is easy to get stuck in a rut and therefore never grow or learn new things!


  3. I couldn’t agree more! I write historical fiction, so I would need a time machine if “write what you know” we’re applied strictly. Research is a constant thing for me.

    Congratulations on being nearly finished with your novel! That’s a big accomplishment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can definitely see how writing about what you don’t know will make you a better writer. You’ll have a distinctly different viewpoint than someone who has been immersed in the topic for a long time. I think you’ll have a better understanding of how to explain things so that someone with no background in the topic will be able to relate to your piece because you’re not making assumptions – something that seems simple to the well-versed in the subject may be completely foreign to a beginner. Great post!


  5. Pingback: The Handwriting Tag | But Why?

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