Today, for a change of pace, we will hear from Nikolas Baron. Nick works for Grammarly, an online automated proofreader that finds and explains grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes in all types of writing.
And without further ado, here's Nick!
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Know What You Write
There's an old adage in writing, “Write only what you know.” The idea is that when you're writing fiction, you should only write about subjects in which you are an expert. After all, in fiction, your ultimate goal should be to convince your reader of the truth in your narrative. How can I truly believe the struggles of the detective's job, if the author has never worked as a detective? Even science-fiction, a genre known for fantastical and wild elements, has to get at least some of the science right, or the story won't be believable. That's why the greats of science-fiction – Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, for example – had strong backgrounds in science, which filtered into each of the science-fiction works.
As with most adages, this one is fairly true, but it's not the whole truth. I've been reading and loving fiction since I was a small child, and over the years, I've read everything from mystery fiction to historical romance to coming-of-age stories to thrillers, and I've learned many things, but one of the most important things I've learned is that in fiction, you can do anything. There are only a few rules in writing fiction, and even then, I can think of examples of books that break those rules.
So, if you want to consider “write only what you know” a rule, then I would encourage you to break it. After all, if we only wrote what we knew, then our careers as fiction writers would be short and boring. I say, instead of writing what you know, we should create a new adage: “Know what you write.”
Do you still need to strive for elements of truth in your fiction? Absolutely, but you also don't need to be an expert. For every science-fiction writer that had a strong background in science, I can name an equally great author that had none. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson's background is in English, while Philip K. Dick took classes in philosophy, history, and psychology. Even Robert A. Heinlein, often mentioned in the same sentence as Asimov and Clarke, dropped out of his mathematics and physics classes to enter politics. But their works all maintained the degrees of truth necessary for great science-fiction. How did they do it? They knew what they wrote.
They read and researched topics they intended to write about. They talked to experts about subjects until they had a working knowledge, until they were confident enough in said subject to write their stories. Were they experts? Maybe some of them. Most of them, however, had a working knowledge, enough truth to make their stories believable.
Know what you write.
We live in an amazing age right now, where countless amounts of information are literally at our fingertips. We have only to sit at the computer, type some search terms into a text box, and learn. Read some basics about your subject, and then, read what experts say about those basics. Read articles about your topic, and then read other articles that critique those original articles. Learn what is going on in your selected field, learn the continuing conversation among experts who continue to push the envelope. From there, you will find the truths you need to strengthen your story.
How will you know when you successfully “know” your topic? When you can write about it, without directly copying any of the information you researched, when you can successfully write about a topic without plagiarizing your sources. Of course, anytime you integrate research into your writing, plagiarism should be a concern. Plagiarism is the intentional or unintentional use of someone else's words without giving them credit. Plagiarism should be avoided at all costs, because simply copying what another writer is saying isn't truly “knowing” a topic. Thankfully, in addition to providing amazing resources for research, the Internet also provides ways to ensure your work is original. At Grammarly, we offer one of the most sophisticated plagiarism checks on the Internet. Our service will scan your text, comparing it to documents all over the Internet, to let you know how original it truly is. Doing this early in the process can save you headaches in the future.
Writing only what you know will ultimately limit you as an author, which is never a good thing. When you write fiction, you have limitless possibilities in narrative form and style, so why shouldn't you have limitless possibilities in subject matter as well? Instead, do your research and know what you write. You'll end up with a story that feels real and organic, a story that draws your readers in with truth about its subject.
Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.
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Thanks for a great post, Nick!
And as always, thanks for reading my blog!