What Makes a Blog or a Book Compelling?
Whether we’re talking about blogs, non-fiction books, or novels, one of the most crucial elements in making it compelling to readers is authenticity. When something is written from your deepest truth; when you’ve put your heart and passion into it, the reader can tell. In my mind, this is another way of saying, “Write what you know.”
Most people take “write what you know” literally, meaning you can only write about situations with which you’re personally familiar. But in my opinion, that’s a limiting way to approach it.
Write what you know means write from a deep place. Be honest. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or expanding your social media platform… be real. Be passionate. Write what you truly believe. Fiction or non-fiction, it’s important to write from the depth of who you are.
Don’t reflect what you know from other people or from movies or TV shows… write what you know from your own inner life. Write your truth.
Writing What You Know… in Fiction
When writing a novel, the plot and the research can come from your head, but the deeper truths of a great story come from a different place. Some might say the heart. I say, wherever you find the most “real” part of you.
You can take your characters into all kinds of worlds, real or imaginary. You can write about different kinds of people, families, relationships, occupations, time periods. Maybe you haven’t personally experienced any of those, so some might say you don’t “know” them. But when you write what YOU know to be true in terms of real motivations, real conflicts, real depth, real emotions… you are writing what you know, and you will connect with readers. Your story will feel authentic.
So, write what YOU know. This is where your originality and uniqueness will come from. Your experience of life is different from anyone else’s.
And, write what you KNOW. Not what you think, or what you’ve heard. Write what your gut tells you is the truth.
Do you write what you know? Is this approach to it different from how you’ve thought of it before?
It seems to me it is good idea. I agree with you.
“Write what you love” might say it better Rachelle. That expresses the depth of authenticity to which you refer.
I always find myself when I sit down to write, casting around for the ‘bedrock’. My figurative feet look for a foundation beneath them.
When I write without that inner conviction, that ‘bedrock’ my readers sense it immediately. I rarely write what I know: one of my great passions is linking pieces of research I have found in original ways – but I always write the thing which engages my passion, which guarantees I will write with integrity.
Is there a danger that ‘what I know’ will leave me complacent and a little stale? Rather, writing ‘who I am’ – that bedrock which underpins – it is the hallmark of all great writers.
Yes, that is a freeing approach to write what you know. The dragon fight may not be real but the emotion of the fight comes from knowing how to fight a good fight.
[…] you want your blog or book to be compelling? Read here to find out […]
Thanks for this refreshing “twist” on what I know. I think I knew this, but now that you write it, I see it more clearly. Thanks. :o)
I like this! I can feel when I am writing something I just HAVE to say, and when it’s artificial. I’m glad to know that I can write about things I haven’t actually experienced 🙂
All my social life, I have been a bit obscure and obtuse; hoping I could beat around the bush and not speak directly and the hearers would still get the message.
This has got to stop in the writing, or the plot will fall flat.
Now, how to do that, to speak directly from what I know and yet take the high road (as one family member encourages) and not trash or expose the folks on whom the characters are built.
As I read the comments that have come before, I see the deep pain and tragedy from which many of you write. Then comes the niggling question; who in CBA is courageous enough to publish the themes, much let alone the language sometimes necessary?
But of course! “To thine own self be true…” Another way of saying, Look in your own heart and write… You as much as say to the reader, Here I am, warts and all. This is my story, I tell it as it was… is. When I came to publish my first paperback (a kind of memoir) on Amazon I thought long and hard before choosing a title: Notes on the Past Imperfect… Written in Hiberno-English, straight from the shoulder – even more importantly, the heart…
Funny, I’ve just been through this thought process recently. I tend to over research and fall in love with the history (I write historical fiction). I have to remind myself that the story needs facts AND heart. The story is still what’s important and that’s the part that has to be pulled up from deep within.
I love this whole idea – what better way to feed my DQ (Drama Queen, not Dairy Queen… although Dairy Queen is a pretty darn good way to feed my Drama Queen) than to write about little old me and that deep place inside.
The one negative fall-out to that, however, is that sometimes my characters all sound like different versions of… you guessed it, ME.
I’m learning to combat that with quirks. I pick a good quirk or flaw or even strength and make sure my character stays true to that quirk. That way, even if everyone has elements of MOI, they still have their own defining traits, too. Does that make sense to anyone but me?
Julie Lessman, self-proclaimed Queen of Quirks, wrote this great article on this subject last month.
All hail the Dairy Queen. If we leave now, we can meet halfway and share a banana split. See you on Kansas somewhere…
Thank you so much for encouraging the way I write–and I’m sure that’s exactly what you had in mind, eh? Encourage Chana?
I write from the gut. Sometimes it’s excruciating, sometimes liberating, but always honest. Rewrites are, however, often the way to force the gut-digging deeper. I like the way you think.
Thank you for the encouragement!
If I’m writing something I’m not familiar with, I make sure it is at least relates to my life. Is there a chance I could go through this situation? If yes, then there’s a good chance my mind can accurately portray it (with a lot of research, of course).
A busy day, but I want to take a minute to thank you for this post, Rachelle. I find your ideas about write what YOU KNOW both affirming and motivating. I believe that God calls a writer because they have a unique life experience that can benefit others. He is using you to encourage and support that work. God bless your efforts!
Thanks for the great post Rachelle. It really resonates with me. I just finished the 4th edit of a novel I started twenty-three years ago. (No, I’m not a ridiculously slow writer.) I typed about thirty pages, life intervened and the notebook went into a drawer. Just last year I found it, gave the tale a read and decided to give it another try.
What an amazing difference those years made. I know I could have written the story then, but it would be nothing like the vibrante tale living in my computer now. Partially, because we only had a typewriter then, but mainly because the 27 year old me, didn’t KNOW what the 50 year old me does.
Keep up the great work, you are making a huge impact.
I write what I know and read what I don’t, so when I need it I know it.
“Write what you know” used to paralyze me, simply because the question that logically follows is “So, just what the heck do I know?” It took me a long time, and a lot of writing – while ignoring outright what I “knew” – to finally amend the adage to “Write what you are PASSIONATE about!” I can learn about anything I am passionate about, which has led me down some fascinating roads. I’ve discovered so much about addiction recovery, spinal cord injuries, Native American culture… things that I never thought I had any business researching because how could I possibly write intelligently about those things? I knew nothing about them! But the stories I’ve felt compelled to tell gave me the courage and the passion to delve into these issues. And it’s made me a better writer, because I’ve learned to make that distinction.
This post is opening so many doors for so many of your readers. I blogged about finding the perfect source today–a girl that was in the foster care system for 10 years. Without that source, what I know would be shallow and so my plot would be, too.
But my main character is closer to home. She deals with childlessness. I know that pain all too well. But God meant it for good and allowed me to touch so many students because my mother nature was attuned to them. Blessings come in different ways than we think they will.
Thanks for reminding me.
Thanks for a post that resonated, Rachelle. I’ve always believed WHO we are — and WHERE we are in our lives — translates to the page. I’ve seen it in my non-fiction writing and in my novels in progress.
When I want to write from my truth and heart, I call it “digging deep.” It takes courage to give words to who I am, but if I don’t, readers know. Believe me. They know.
My current WIP includes a painter who has “lost her way” creatively – started painting what she thinks others want to see. Your excellent post has made me realize that those parts of the manuscript that felt dead to me were just the same thing – I was writing what I thought others would want to hear, not what I knew to be true. Now I can fix, and write my truth. Thank you.
Yes, Rachelle! It implies that we, as authors, are limited by the depth of our experiences, or at least the depth of our imaginations. For Christian authors that also implies that the depth of a character’s relationship with Christ is limited by the author’s.
Another excellent post. While at the surface, “write what you know” might seem relatively simple, it is often extremely difficult, especially when writing a memoir or nonfiction. In writing my religious/spiritual memoir, “writing what I know” was often very difficult as it required me to dig deep within myself and come to terms with things that I had pushed to the side for many years.
Rachelle, as always a great post! I think this is great advice. And we all know more than we think we know. But I’ve also found that it’s good to write from what you are desperate to know–to write not just from the mountain top where you are saying, “Wow,, I get all this now,” but also from the place where you aren’t sure yet that you do. I love to write from that edge of what I am learning sometimes because it helps me to write so that the reader can experience those ahas with me, through me, instead of me proclaiming known facts. I guess there’s a difference between writing about an area you don’t really understand or haven’t experienced and writing about an area where you still have questions. In non-fiction, I think there are two kinds of books. The one where the author has all the answers and is telling you how to implement them, and the one where the author is sharing what she knows and has learned but is coming alongside the reader as a fellow pilgrim.
Your blogs are always so thought provoking, Rachelle. Thank you!!
I really enjoyed this post. I remember the first time I met you (at the Mardel’s in Colorado Springs). You were speaking on this same subject. I was so inspired by what you said that I came home and made a sign to hang on my office wall. It says “My Deepest Truth.” Thanks so much for the inspiration that you give to writers, Rachelle. It really means a lot.
Although I’ve heard that expression for decades, I never directly associated it with writing from the heart, but that makes sense. I think I enjoy my writing the most
and it seems richer and deeper when I do
write from my heart. It’s more believable.
Thank you, Rachelle, for making that clear.
I love this, Rachelle! The adage has bothered me for a while but your perspective really rings true to me. Thank you, thou enlightened one! 🙂
Writing what you know in your heart isn’t easy. However, in that process you’re likely going to discover what you didn’t know you knew. That is a very rewarding part of writing.
My human elements are always the strongest. Scene and setting, not so much. I’m sure that’s because I’m a true student of human nature. I watch people, learn them, and oftentimes know what they’re going to do or how they’re going to react to a situation before they do. Because of this, my characters truly leap from the page and into the lap of the reader. I write what many people are afraid to write because they’re afraid that not many of us can stand to have the truth told. Backlash is feared. Screw that. I know people. I say, bring it on. Great post. I preach this all the time. WRITE ON!
When writing fiction, I am the main character, whether they are doing things I’ve done before or not, it’s the way I convey the emotion. That’s why I feel writing fiction is like living many lives.
Yes! I know exactly what you mean! How I write the emotion as however I would feel it in each situation.
Each heroine I’ll ever write will be a red head. Unless my agent makes me use a substandard hair colour. 😉
“Write what you know” stilted my creativity for a long while. It’s one of the reasons I never picked up a pen, or opened a Word file. Then I read somewhere that “write what you know” was essentially a garbage theory when applied literally.
So here I am, after writing what I consider to be a darn good bit of reading. Do I *know* what it’s like to be hated for my skin color and hunted, to lose my family, to be beaten to a pulp by my husband or to start all over with a whopping case of PTSD with a side of debilitating depression? Umm, no, yes, no, no, yes. Have I met people who’ve been abused? Yup. Have I met people with PTSD? Yes. In fact, it was the same woman for both of those answers. And the question about being hunted? My dad is from a place no one ever goes for the scenery. When people find out his nationality, I can see the flicker of fear in their eyes. I have actually said, in anger, “He hasn’t shot anyone today, but the day ain’t over yet”.
I know the eyes of the hated. Of those who just want the beatings to end. I know what it’s like to never see half my family again. I’ve seen more than one friend sit with their back to the wall and their eyes on the room. And yup, I have sat in a dark corner and KNOWN the direct portal to Hell that is depression.
So yes, I write what I know, but I can pretty it up and take my readers to a made up place and time and take their hand and lead them through it. Hopefully I can influence how they see those for whom life is not a bowl of cherries.
Therein is the truth of your writing. You know the emotions well. Sympathy looks from the outside, but empathy feels the pain. An empathetic writer who evokes others to feel it is one who connects with both worlds and bridges the gap.
Wow, you’ve expanded my understanding of, “write what you know.” Thank you. It can be the difference between writing from a “head level” and a “heart level.” I always learn when I stop by here. Thanks, Rachelle.
I write what I know, but sometimes feel that I am exposing too much. Confidence in self waivers without the formal societal coverups. Bit little by little I’m becoming more comfortable with what I know.
Have you heard of the book “you are not so smart?” The author talks about how much we think we know, but really don’t. This bothered me for a while, because it reiterated feelings I had already had. Perspective of moods and days changes “what we know.” But we have to be brave and write through the wavering knowledge of reality, writing from the heart, so we can say that at least we wrote what we knew in that moment. Ideas are not truth- instead write for meaning, relatability, and beauty. Write from the heart, dampening your inner judge.
These are just some things I’ve been learning. Writing, it seems, is about a lot more than writing.
Summer, your comment struck a chord. I remember hearing Pat Barker speak (winner of the Booker Prize for one of the books in her trilogy about WWI soldiers). I was puzzled. She said, “Fiction provides a mask,” and she put her hand over her face to illustrate. After years of writing both fiction and non, now I understand. Fiction is exposing because a story can take you to emotional places you may prefer to avoid (even if the topic isn’t autobiographical). On the other hand, you aren’t tied to The Facts about your own story. The tricky thing is that emotional vulnerability is not limited to the precise events of one’s own history! Loved Rachelle’s definition of ‘write what you know’–authenticity is scary.
It’s the only reason I write. I didn’t set out to be a writer. God had simply changed my life and after sharing it through speaking, He said to me, “Write it down and I’ll put it in the hands of people you’ll never meet.”
This has been my motivation… to write what I know, what I’ve learned, what changed my life, and what I believe will help and change others.
Great post. Thanks 🙂
Writing what I live, with one eye on my audience and one eye on my soul . . . this is how I write. Really, this is why I write.
Inward to outward and back in again. It’s how I grow into the woman God means for me to be.
After all these years of screaming at anybody who would listen, “Write what you know? How boring!” I finally get it.
Thank you, Rachelle, for giving me a much better, stronger standard for measuring the authenticity of my work. Great post!
This is one of my favorite things about writing—this unique blend of catharsis and empathy.
Great way of putting this sage advice. You’re right–as a new writer it’s tough to not get confounded by “write what you know” paired with the main job of the fiction writer–to make stuff up. But even when we make stuff up, there’s a core of the story that comes from inside us. And there’s another layer on that–as we revise and refine, there’s a point at which we know the work is singing to us.
It’s rough sometimes to drink coffee and make stuff up while keeping it real. There’s a fine line between pretending and pretentiousness.
I used to take “write what you know” very literally to mean subjects where I have expertise.
Now I know, I have felt many emotions and when I have the courage to dig deep, I can write them into my character’s world. The Character’s experiences may be totally different than mine, but it is the feelings from those experiences that keep readers turning pages
Rachelle, I am so glad you keep up this blog. It is one of the most helpful, for writers, on the web.
I appreciate you so much and can’t wait to see you in Dallas. (You will be at ACFW, won’t you?)
See you there, Sharon!
I know exactly what you mean! I tend to write fantasy, so I don’t “know” about the world I am writing in that sense. What I do know is how my characters are feeling, what motivates them, etc. I know the theme of my book, because it’s a deep truth that I think most can relate to. You put it very well! Thank you!
Yes, yes, yes! Thankyou for this insanely great description that I want to remember for the rest of my life. I think that’s the best writing advice, like, ever.
You know more than you think you know.
What you don’t know, you can find out. The joys of research–and travel!
What you still don’t know, you can imagine. The challenge and joy of writing!
This is great advice, Rachelle. Stilted dialog and plastic seat cushions on Maseratis stem from stories outside of what we know.
I just wrote a long rant and deleted it (after emailing it to myself). It had nothing to do with writing, but was about a subject about which I feel passion burning so deeply that to contemplate it for a fraction of a second turns my face crimson. All I have to do is decide how I’m going to channel it into my fiction. That may be the safest place for it.
Or you could flip that email to a few trusted writer friends and not be alone, either in your hurt, or your desire to share what you know.
Good stuff Rachelle.
What you “know” is a combination of knowledge, experience and thoughtful reflection. The reflection part is critical. That is the interpretation.
Many people already have the information and maybe the experience. They read what others write to get a handle on how to interpret it. They want the meaning not the data.
This is a sensational post, and a fantastic slant on “write what you know” (sooo insightful!). In a world that loves to tell people what it thinks, black and white can become increasingly grey, so writing from the gut is more vital than ever. What we know really is what might help someone else. Proselytizing the life out of people with platitudes has well and truly had its day (like, 10,000 years ago). Gimme something REAL.
This is also actually a really cool cure for writer’s block! If you cut back to grass roots what your character ‘knows’…
Rachelle, you rock.
PS~ Loved the post about blogs and content. It’s making me change me approach!
When it takes me six hours to write half a page, I know I’ve hit a nerve.
I’m writing a memoir about the nine years I worked as a stripper, and between the flashbacks of drug induced darkness, abuse and self sabotage, the writing does not come easy. The deeper I dig, the slower the process, but it’s raw and it’s real.
I write what I know, because it’s the only way I know how.
As a sexually abused, regularly terrorized and beaten survivor, I relate to the pain of the past when attempting to unlock memories. There’s a lot of darkness in those dungeons. Peace.
PJ, well, me too.
I fooled myself when I started my novel. I told myself it “wasn’t about me,” even though I consciously decided to make the novel about sexual abuse, and I ALSO knew that the characters reflected my own psychological realities.
“The story was so different from mine,” after all. Hey, I never had a sister! My abuser wasn’t my dad!
Maybe I needed to believe in that distance in order to dive into the topic…? But it’s also made the book very hard to write. Not emotionally–but the character’s motivations have been extremely hard to make clear and coherent. (Gee, my own ambiguity crept in?!) Once I realized this, I kinda relaxed that the book is taking so long to write…
Oh, riiight, the emotional content is MY emotional content.
I admire your bravery. A work such as yours deserves the time you’re putting into it. Fortunately, there are no deadlines upon us at this stage. May you have peace as you write.
A tough topic.
You have great courage, and great love.
Writing is therapeutic. Keep going.
This is a brilliant post Rachelle and I too have struggled much with that fine line of fiction, creative non-fiction and feeling that I’m often putting too much of myself into my stories for them to be of interest to a broader audience. For Christine Macdonald I had a great suggestion given to me by one of my favourite writers Richard Wagamese about finding the words to write a difficult story. He suggests telling the entire story out loud from start to finish to a trusted friend or even just to yourself. I’ve done that recently and it seems to be working. In my case I told it to the birds and deer at my cottage. They seemed to like it! Good luck with your story.
Thank you for the great advice! I’m actually back in therapy to help me finish my book.
What a great group of writers here.
Thanks for all you do, Rachelle!
My version of this would be “when it takes more than a decade to write a novel, maaaybe I’ve hit a nerve?!”
Go for it! I bet your book is stronger for those thousands of nerve-minutes!
It’s important to draw a distinction between writing what you know, writing what you are, or were, and writing about characters that interact with the character that’s ‘you’.
Speaking personally, I ‘know’ what it’s like to be a university professor, construction worker, security contractor, airplane mechanic, and rugby player.
That said, I can take the motivations, aspirations, and conflicts from those lives and write about them…and I do. My central character (or narrator, if I ever choose to write in the first person) always has a connexion with one or more of these ‘lives’. I’d be foolish to take any other approach; authenticity would go out the window.
The supporting characters, however, are a different story. While I could write about the deep and meaningful relationships between mercenaries engaged in their business in a truly nasty part of the world, it wouldn’t really reach my target demographic.
So, I place my character in a more ‘normal’ setting, and flesh out the interactions between the main character with what I ‘know’ of the way they relate to others. I can’t get inside the head of a wife who’s dealing with a husband who checks under his car for booby traps every morning, but I can write what it looks like to talk with her, what it sounds like. I can get her emotions through dialogue and described body language (and, of course, action).
I’ve found that this requires almost constant attention to what people around me are saying, what they’re doing. I have to study my spouse, friends, colleagues, acquaintences. I don’t need a notebook, but I seem to recall that others – Hemingway, for example – took copious notes of his observations. It’s not a bad idea.
Am I using people for literary fodder? Absolutely.
But there’s a side benfit…understanding the people around me to the point that I can write about them in a convincing manner also means that I’m paying attention to what they say.
I hope it makes me a better husband, and friend.
Perhaps all writers must do that if their supporting cast is to be believable. I’ve never been a psychotic dictator who severs a friends head off on a momentary whim, but I played on on TV (oh wait, no I didn’t.) Anyway, observation seems to be a key element in good character development.
When I read your comment, I read ‘psychic’ dictator. TOTALLY different spin.
Anyway, you’re right about observation, but I think a lot of writers – somne quite prominent – fall short.
As an example, Robert Ruark’s “Something Of Value”. It’s a stunning book, in many ways, but some of the characters, while convincing, don’t pass hte authenticity test. Ruark spent time in Kenya, and his depiction of the planters seems spot-on at first read, but in point of fact…they’re fairly well-disguised cliches.
If it works, it’s successful? Perhaps.
I think its interesting. I have an assassin (villain) in my book, and I gave her some of my attributes to make me know part of her (a musical inclination). But I also gave her the attributes (albeit magnified) of a person I knew who could callously separate what they do from the consequences (emotional & psychological).
I write an embellished “what I know”.
Some people want to read about mercenaries and their levels of friendship, just sayin’.
There is a story there, surprising warm, and well-worth telling. The motivation for the mercenary profession is generally closer to Housman than Donald Trump:
“These, in the day that heaven was falling
the hour when Earth’s foundations fled,
followed their mercenary calling
and took their wages and are dead
“Their shoulders held the sky suspended,
they stood, and Earth’s foundations stay.
What God abandoned, these defended
and saved the sum of things for pay.”
This philosophical bent can lead tome interesting conversations in unexpected places. I’d say that the average mercenary, or security contractor, is better-educated and more conscious of the moral implications of the profession than is the average soldier or law enforcement officer. There are many reasons, but a simple one stands out – it’s not easy to find employment. It takes persistence and determination, and the thrillseekers have an easier time elsewhere.
Wow, Rachelle – look at the topics you open!
One of my mom’s favorite sayings is: “I know that I know…” that’s how I approach my writing. My current WIP is about two individuals that must face the reality that their dreams may not be the ones God has planned for them. I experienced this very recently. I had always planned on homeschooling my children (I was a homeschooler myself), but when God blessed us with twins, I had to accept that my plans were different than God’s. It was the death of a twenty-year dream and it took me months to work through.
My hero and heroine face much different situations, but the truth remains the same, our lives are in God’s hands and He will ultimately direct our paths. “In his heart man plans his course, but God determines his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
The death of a dream is hard. I know.
I am the ressurection and the life…he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.
Dying is the necessary portal through which we and our dreams must pass so they can take full and incorruptible life in the sufficient fullness of Christ.
It’s the hardest lesson on earth.
Wow. Andrew, that was, just…wow.
I can see how the feelings you felt can translate into the characters’ when they are placed in a different scenario, but with the same human dynamics. It’s what you know applied.
Beautifully shared, Gabrielle. You give a real-life example of what Rachelle shared. Thanks for that. BTW, your story sounds wonderful.
Oh honey, I know what it’s like to lay a dream on the altar and have to walk away. Yes, the truth DOES remain the same, and isn’t that wonderful? He knows your hurt, but His plans will cover the hurt over, so much so that you will look back one day and wonder how much blessing a girl can take!