This one isn’t going to be nearly as long as my usual writing rambles; it’s not as complicated as the last few.
In the past, I’ve declared the formulation ‘write what you know’ to be bunk, and I suggested ‘write what you read’ in its place. Further reflection, plus a conversation with my girlfriend, suggests that, while ‘write what you read’ isn’t incorrect, it’s also not as general as it could be.
The aforementioned conversation covered careers and the idea that it’s good to do something ‘interesting’, and the insight it sparked was that ‘interesting’ isn’t meaningful in that sense. I know a few accountants and an actuary or two who find their work interesting from day to day, I enjoy my day as a software engineer, and pretty much everyone I know who’s satisfied with their job would describe it as interesting. ‘Interesting’ is insufficient as a descriptor; it’s an objective word in the usual phrasing (‘this is interesting’) for a subjective concept. I prefer “I like this thing” instead1.
It captures the subjectivity neatly, and expresses a deeper truth: if you like a thing, you think it’s interesting. It explains why number munchers like some of my friends and bit wranglers like myself can go to jobs which are admittedly very samey on a day-to-day basis and still find each new day exciting. On the flip side, it’s usually also the case that you don’t think things you don’t enjoy are interesting. If I were jetting around the world as a corporate lawyer, the travel wouldn’t be very interesting to me. If I were jetting around the world to write travel articles, or to write code at a customer’s headquarters, I would find the travel very interesting. In a way, I suppose I’m saying that the destination matters.
Time to bring it back in toward writing again. Written works fall into three categories as they relate to you: stuff you don’t like, stuff you like, and stuff you like that you also like to write. I enjoy John Grisham and Stephen King, but I don’t especially like to write in either of their genres. I also like Larry Niven and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I also like to write in their genres2. You may have noticed where I’m going here. If you like a thing, you find it interesting. If you find it interesting, you’ll do the work to write it well, because it won’t seem like work at all.
That’s pretty much it. The things you love are the things you find interesting, and since you care about them, you’ll recognize if you’re not doing them well and put in the work to improve yourself. The obvious formulation here is ‘write what you love’. I might rephrase it as ‘write whatever you like—just like it enough to do it well’, but that’s wordier and probably less good.
I’m still getting over a cold, so you can’t expect too much out of me. I hope this made some sense.
1. Or “I love this thing”, but I’ve always been a temperate sort of guy.
2. Given that Niven’s fantasy is a lot of fun, I could have said maybe Niven and Niven.