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Don’t Write What You Know—Do This Instead

What causes a writer—a good one—to crumple his hard work into a wad of paper and deposit it into the nearest wastebasket?

The symptom is writer’s doubt. The disease is Imposter Syndrome. 

The cure? Don’t write what you know. Write what you feel.

I recently read about Stephen King’s breakout novel, Carrie. While I don’t read or recommend King’s books (I prefer to learn from his genius at a safe distance), I do draw inspiration, of all things, from his self-doubt.

Stephen wrote the first three pages of Carrie on his typewriter, read them, and promptly crumpled them up in disgust.

His wife, who found the pages in the trash can and read them, wanted to know the rest of the story and urged him to write it. He told her he didn’t know a thing about high school girls—his excuse for giving up. His wife told him she’d help him with that part. Fifty pages later and Stephen started to see what his wife could see—a feeling. An emotion. Something that transcended Stephen’s limited knowledge of the facts.

After his novella was published, it took off, launching Stephen King to superstardom as an author. And it all started with three pages in the wastebasket.

You’re Not a Fraud!

Many times I’ve gotten stuck on a story because I don’t know the subject matter well enough. It happens all the time. I don’t have enough life experience to consider myself an expert on anything worthy of a novel. It’s the moment I know I’m an imposter—that I have no right to pen this story.

I thought I was the only writer who felt that way. But apparently, it’s common among authors—and it has a name: Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are a fraud, even when evidence points to the contrary. If you’re a writer, it’s the belief that you have fooled your readers into thinking you’re more intelligent than you really are. Included in the syndrome is a fear of exposure—that you will get found out as a fraud and exposed to the public.

For example, if you want to write a book about a brilliant detective, but you’re not a detective yourself, Imposter Syndrome tells you that you should never write that story. It tells you that only detectives—make that only brilliant detectives—are qualified to write it.

It’s a ridiculous notion. If writers were anything but writers, they wouldn’t be writers. Which is why Imposter Syndrome is just that—a syndrome, not a reality.

But there is a way to sidestep it.

You’re Already an Expert

Writers are an expert in one thing. And that one thing is what makes them the most qualified individuals to write stories.

Writers are an expert in feelings.

Maybe Stephen King didn’t know much about his particular subject matter, but he did know one thing. What it feels like to be a bullied human being. And that emotion, that feeling, carried him through, filling in the gaps he didn’t know with research and advice from his wife.

Novels have one primary purpose. It is to share a feeling with us—to teach us empathy. No matter how much technical knowledge you pick up along the way, the purpose of reading a novel is to connect with a character, a human being, and see through their eyes.

Write what you feel.

Without compromise, you need to let emotions guide your story before everything else. It’s the only way to write a story with purpose.

Without compromise, you need to let emotions guide your story before everything else. It’s the only way to write a story with purpose.

It’s been a personal theme of mine for a while now, and it deserves attention.

Consider yourself an expert in the field of emotions. Because you don’t just have them, you observe them as they happen. 

As a human being, you have full authority to write stories with emotion.

Respect your own ability to tell a story by relying on your inborn emotions to carry the plot through. Let research come along for the ride, but don’t let it drive. If you make a mistake in your descriptions, fix it in your second draft. Technical mistakes aren’t the catastrophe some nitpicky readers would have you believe.

What About Plot?

Am I saying to throw sense to the wind in exchange for the turbulent waves of emotion?

Well … kind of.

The point of plot is to deliver emotion. Without emotion, plot structure is nothing but a bulleted list, a powerpoint display.

So use plot to your advantage. There are many tricks and devices you can use to imbue your story with emotion and trigger feelings in your reader, and you should use all of them. Learn how to end a scene well. Use techniques to create suspense. Avoid common plot mistakes.

Write the best story you can, and use as much research as you wish. Use every trick in the book.

But keep your priorities straight: you're qualified not for your technical knowledge, but for your ability to relate to people through story. Because, deep down, we know that all stories are about us.

As we read about Scrooge, we see our own selfishness and learn about redemption.

When we read about Jo March, we're inspired to both pursue our own stubborn dreams and sacrifice for family's sake.

Reading Robin Hood gives us courage to stand up for what's right, even when it tarnishes our own reputation.

We read what we feel. So write what you feel.

Let this truth override everything else: self-doubt, writer’s block, criticism. You are qualified to write your feelings, and nobody can tell you differently. And your stories will have more worth than the most technically accurate narrative ever penned, because we read with our hearts, not our minds.

And kick Imposter Syndrome out of your mind, once and for all. It’s the real imposter. Not you.

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Joshua Sword

I'm twenty-six and work as a livestream producer by day. I'm highly facetious. It's very hard to take me seriously, a fact that I carefully nurture and protect, because I don't want people calling me Mr. Josh and kissing my hand and handing me scotch or whatever they do in the serious world. I like my own world just fine.

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