The Third Something

141 / Write What You Know

How to find your original voice in this noisy world.

Oft given advice is “write what you know”.

I don’t agree: the human imagination is capable of conjuring people and places we’ve never experienced. Doing so is a healing exercise in empathy for the writer and reader.

But I do think there’s a nugget of truth in there. Try saying it like this:

Write what only you know.

That little added word reframes your limitations as your uniqueness. It’s a clarion call to connect with your intuition, to notice what you notice and embrace your weirdness.

In Story, Robert McKee recommends writers use the Stanislavski technique when writing scenes: to enter into the minds of each character at each beat and ask: “If I were this person in this situation, what would I do?”

It’s a cleverly phrased question and answering it creates responses that are individual to the character you’re writing and the situation they’re in; equally by asking “what would I do?”, your characters each respond in a way that is True to you.

In my graphic novel, there’s a character who’s motivated entirely by a need for affection from a distant father: this need drives everything he does. In my early drafts, his strategy was to pull off a feat that would impress his dad. But when I really sat down with this character, I realised his strategy wasn’t True — it’s not what I would do. I know that, in fact, I would do the opposite: I would push my father away, in the false hope that rejection would bring him closer.

I know this is True because it’s what I did.

A small change in motivation rooted my character’s behaviour in his author’s truth, while also leaving room for him to act in a way that is unique to him.

Following this light, I hope — I don’t know because I haven’t done it yet! — my book will emerge as something no-one else could have written but me.

And as I try and repeatedly fail to find my place in this convulsive media terrain, that’s the one cornerstone I keep coming back to.

In a world of lonely souls hawking for attention; where everyone’s selling something, when there are thousands of novels and scripts published each month, more TV shows than anyone can count, how do you stay original?

By remaining true to the one thing no-one else can be: yourself. Find the way you do it!

“I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself and myself only”

James Baldwin


An announcement! After five years, I have left Substack. If you’re interested in the reasons for the decision, I’ve written this brief explanation; but the short version is that platform-independence is really important to me.

The home of The Third Something has always been this website. The letters are published here several hours before the email is sent and it’s where the letters look best. It’s even organised by tags!.

Leaving Substack is in line with my values but it comes at a cost: the newsletter will be less discoverable. So please, if a letter resonates with you, share it as widely as you can. If a letter inspires your own ideas, be a mensch and send a link back to me.

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And there’s not one but two exciting opportunities to join my team at The New York Times and help make some of the best video journalism in the world!

We’re hiring for a video producer to report and develop high-impact films, and a vertical video producer to make videos for TikTok, Instagram and YouTube and build our audience off-site.

They’re awesome opportunities for creative journalists to reinvent video storytelling at one of the world’s greatest newspapers. Please share them around and consider applying!

Until another Sunday soon,

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