To The Author In Search of A Subject

Illustration of a scribe writing

In my view there are two conflicting strains of advice for authors regarding what they should write. One, which I’ll call the “write what you know” advice, claims that writers are most successful when they write about what they know intimately. Authors need to know a subject before they write, according to this advice.

The other line of thinking, let’s call it the “research before you write” advice, suggests that authors research carefully not only the subject but for the market for a book to make sure there is some kind of market for the book. Authors, this idea claims, should write what will sell, not just whatever they happen to know about.

If you ask me, both views are simplistic, at least.

The idea that an author should write what he or she knows is very appealing, and has a certain truth to it. Authors do need to know the subject they write about.

But somehow, for many authors, the implication is that the writer is better off writing about what he already knows instead of learning what he needs to know for what the author wants to write about. Of course its possible to learn well enough what you are writing about, authors do it all the time. It does take more effort, however.

Isaac Asimov on Throne

The idea that authors should concentrate on what they know also narrows what they can write about so stringently that its hard to see how any writer could produce more than a handful of books, at least not without gaining new life experience or doing significant research. It also flies in the face of many authors who have written on multiple subjects, often on subjects they didn’t know at all before they began writing. For example, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote more than 200 books on a wide variety of subjects, from science to the Bible to Shakespeare. I’m sure that Asimov knew little about some of these subjects before he (and his assistants, I assume) started researching the subjects he wrote about.

On the other hand, researching the market before writing sometimes seems very calculating and cold. I have to wonder when a writer approaches his or her writing in that way if the writing will really show any inspiration or passion or creativity. But, I do think that it is possible for writers to become passionate about subjects that they don’t know.

Even if the author does become passionate about the subject, research is often of very limited help, or require interpretation that most of us are not capable of. While its pretty easy to find what other books have been published on most non-fiction subjects (fiction is more difficult), what does that mean? If there are 10 books on the subject, does that mean that there is a potential audience of 10,000 readers? or that a new book on this subject could sell 50 copies a month? Knowing the market through research can also lead an author to simply write the same thing that every other author is writing (after all, that is proven to sell).

Deciding what to write about isn’t necessarily easy. Clearly what the author knows and what he or she feels passionate about informs this decision. And if the author really knows the subject, then he knows what books already exist on the subject, what they say and which books are better than others.

But what an author knows can also be less certain than it may seem. In the LDS context, what we think we believe — that we say we know each fast and testimony meeting — can sometimes be conflated with other information that is not accurate, leading to the author writing books with information that isn’t accurate. [I discussed one issue like that in a post last February asking What Trips Up Mormon Lit?

The bottom line is that an author needs to be aware of both these sources of advice, and try to apply both of them in choosing their subjects. These both need to be kept in balance. And, most of all, the author needs to be very honest and aware of his or her limitations.

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7 thoughts on “To The Author In Search of A Subject”

  1. .

    Although I’m of a mind that writing for a market is rather soulless, some of my best work has been written for hire.

    And then, usually, rejected. Of course.

  2. My writing partner loves to say that nothing fuels creativity like stark, last-second panic. We’ve done some of our best work on ridiculous deadlines.

  3. Deadlines are good (although ridiculous ones maybe not so much). My writing output over the past four years would be half to two-thirds what it would have been if not for the desire to finish something to submit to the Irreantum Fiction Contest every year.

  4. .

    Kent–

    I actually find the opposite to be true. It’s like writing a sonnet–there’s something about proscribed limitations which can be quite freeing.

    And, William, I’m so upset I forgot about the contest this year. I knew there was a reason I wanted to finish that story before the school year was over! Oh well. Now it’s novel time.

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