The first rule of writing

write what you LIKE, by austin kleon

This post is #2 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

I always hated that whole “Write what you know” thing. I didn’t know jack shit from jack shinola when I first picked up a pencil, and I doubt anyone would have enjoyed The Highly-Limited World of a Five-Year-Old Middle-Class White Girl from Chicago (Harper & Row, 1966). Better that I should make up not-entirely-sensical stories about Russian princesses and doll villages and what happened to Ken when the grown-ups left us unattended to play Barbies.

But there’s something more to this idea of writing what you like: it makes things juicy. Juicy-messy, but anyone who’s ever had one of those Christmastime pears from Harry & David knows how awesome that can be. Writing what you like instead of just what you know is like starting in the middle, where the action is. You’re not ramping up with a lot of exposition or PC BS; you’re diving right into to the wacko of life. And I don’t care how stuffy or sane or normal or straight anyone seems on the outside, on the inside, there’s a whole lot of wacko going on. Count on it.

Every time this blog has gotten boring, or the newsletter, or the column, or anything else I’ve written, it’s been because I was trying to do things A Certain Way. To give people more of what they wanted, so I could get something. What people and what they wanted, I had no idea; what I was trying to get, though, was always one of the same two things: attention and love. Sometimes in the form of money, sometimes ink, sometimes (ugh) celebrity.

And every time my writing has gotten interesting, it’s because I’ve gotten back to talking about what interests me. Which changes. Like people.

You knew that already, though. Things only seem to stay the same; you know that they don’t, that the price of pretending they do means living in a world that doesn’t really exist, and looking a whole lot like some sad Baby Jane nightmare relic of a Hollywood that never was.

Write what you like, and you’ve got the beginnings of work you can love.


P.S. Did you know there’s a whole other thing going on at the fundraising blog, too? Interviews with my fave old and new ladywriters. First up: the outstandingly helpful, funny and PROLIFIC Bonnie Gillespie.

Image inside the frame by Austin Kleon, one of a series of wise slides from his talk, “How to Steal Like an Artist (and Nine Other Things No One Told Me).” You can get it in a luxurious, desktop-sized image of inspiration with a $15 contribution to the 50-for-50 project on IndieGoGo, through September 13, 2011. After that, you’re on your own.


  1. Thanks. I always wondered about that old adage, and I’m not writer. Stories and the craft of telling them interests me though. Ian Fleming knew something about spies but what could J.R.R. Tolkien know about Hobbits?

    1. I always wondered about the adage, and I *am* a writer!

      I’m really looking forward to reading Austin’s book. He’s so smart and talented, and has an excellent sense of humor. I’m sure it will be full of great stuff like this.

  2. I agree fully. I have written three historical nonfiction books because the subject interested me and was something I liked doing research on and writing. Comments from readers are along the line of “I never heard of that, it was really interesting. I’d like to know more.” My current project is fiction, but on a topic I find really interesting and enjoyable to write about and something my friends are looking forward to reading.

  3. “And every time my writing has gotten interesting, it’s because I’ve gotten back to talking about what interests me. Which changes. Like people.”

    Oh dear lord, of course you are RIGHT. Thank you. Everytime I hate what I’m writing it’s because I’m trying to get something — right on.

  4. I always understood “write what you know” to embrace making things up. Few people could be said to know more than Tolkien when it came to Hobbits or other denizens of Middle Earth. If you create the knowledge you can still own it.

    However, if I were to try and write about the struggles of a black teenager in the ghetto, it would ring thoroughly hollow. I don’t have the life experience and there are people in the world who do. I don’t know the details and this would be obvious to many readers.

    “Write what you know” isn’t meant to stop you from exercising your imagination, it is meant to stop you from being one of those jerks whose protagonist is a battered woman whose husband won’t sign the divorce papers, or writes about crime in a foreign country and has suspects ‘taking the fifth.’

    You can “write what you know” by doing research or making things up. It doesn’t have to be life experience.

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