The Writer’s Needful– Part Four– The Universe of Study

It might have been better to call this post “the universe of knowledge”, especially if “study” implies formal coursework somewhere, somewhen, in a formal institution of learning. That is not what I’m talking about, at least, not just. What I am talking about is what an author needs to know in order to write.

And that is not “the techniques of writing” nor “how to break into publishing” nor “how to market your books”. I am referring to the knowledge of truths and facts and how things– both material and immaterial– work. Most especially, knowing about the subjects on which you write.

Well, the answer to this one is simple.

You need to know everything.

Well, my work here is done….wait, you need that explained? Really? Oh, okay.

Let me put this succinctly– the possession of a deep understanding your specific subject, as well as a general understanding of the great mass of human knowledge, is essential to good writing.

I don’t usually go around quoting Hemingway, but this once something he said seems very appropriate–

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge….A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Most of us will never be ‘great writers’, but the necessity of knowing what you’re talking about is fundamental to any writer. This is specific to the topic on which you write– whether it’s the meat-packing industry or nuclear physics– and in general for all of human knowledge. As Hemingway said, this is impossible in toto; but you have to come as close to it as you can.

In short, writers have to be educated.

Not necessarily formally educated– there have been many writers who had hardly any formal education whatsoever. Jane Austen never went to college. Neither did Mark Twain. Both, however, would have to be classified as learned people in their time and place. For another example, Abraham Lincoln had hardly any formal schooling, but he educated himself, and in his speeches and letters he created some of the greatest prose in the English language.

Certainly, formal education can be an advantage to a writer, but we can also multiply examples of men and women who have attended the highest educational institutions and remain ignoramuses. Obviously, a formal course of study is no guarantee that you will succeed as a writer, or anything else.

Perhaps mostly importantly, then, writers must be able to educate themselves.

Many or most writers are already readers– most of us come to writing through our reading. However, a writer needs to read not just in their favorite genre of fiction– they need to read broadly, to comprehend the shape of their own culture, to understand what has gone before, and to bring depth to their writing. A writer also needs the capability of intensively researching out specific issues as needed to round out their stories.

Everything you read, all the formal courses you take, and all the topics of interest you research will feed into your stories. Every history you read, every Shakespeare play you see, every language you stumble through, will lend depth to your fiction. The more broadly you spread your search for knowledge and understanding, the better your writing will be.

Let me share a personal example of what I am talking about– I have read a lot of history, particularly around military topics. At the moment, in preparation for a future novel in the same universe as the Divine Lotus series, I am reading histories on the British-Zulu War of 1979 and the French and Indian War. I am also reading a history on Reconstruction, which would be part of the background for a possible Civil War novel. None of these topics have anything to do with my current work in progress– they are preparation for works in the near to distant future. And these specific readings connect with and enhance the background I already possess in military history.

The consequence of not possessing a broad base of knowledge, and of not understanding whatever specific topics are involved in your writing, is shallow, ineffective prose, thin and transparent rather than deep and rich. This hold true for fiction and non-fiction; with non-fiction in particular this can result in catastrophically bad writing. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, readers interested in your topic will detect it immediately and rip your efforts to pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s evident from the mass of badly thought-out and written books available on self-published venues that all too many people are writing in ignorance, to put it bluntly. They have not taken the care to read, to study and to comprehend their topics. It’s the sort of thing that taints self-published books in all too many readers’ minds.

The solution to this for any writer is quite easy, though– read. Read everything. Read until your eyeballs fall out. Read, and think about what you’ve read, and feed it into your writing. Take classes as well, if possible, but above all, read. I guarantee you’ll not regret it.

Next topic: Experience.


3 thoughts on “The Writer’s Needful– Part Four– The Universe of Study”

  1. Thank so much for your wisdom! It is as inspiring as it is helpful. Now I have heard the same good advice from you and the author Barbara Kingsolver. She says ” The great underestimated source of knowledge for writers is school” and “if you’re a young writer and a smoker, you should probably quit, because that will increase your odds of getting old enough to accumulate wisdom.”

    1. Thanks for the reblog– I’m glad you liked the post.

      And it’s absolutely the first time I have ever been mentioned in the same sentence as Barbara Kingsolver. You have flattered me. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s