Write what you know

Ah yes, the first writing platitude we all learned: write what you know. According to an article I came across from the New Yorker, that was the prevailing mantra in writing instruction in the 1940s and ’50s (and for the next two decades, it was the also-well-intentioned-but-equally-misguided “show, don’t tell“).

One of the primary evidences people usually give against this rule is the fact that only writing what you know—or, as it seems to say, what you’ve experienced—reduces all writing to autobiography. Unless you have some sort of mental disorder (or live a very different life from me!), this rule leaves no room for fantasy, science fiction, paranormal (well, I suppose that one’s debatable). There would be no Shakespeare or Twain (well, a lot less Twain, anyway) or . . . fiction, when it comes down to it.

And that’s true. If we were completely limited to only writing about our experiences, the literary world would be a bleak and boring place, rife with . . . well, check out exhibit A at right. Most of us lead very boring lives (and would have no hope of ever receiving a publishing contract). We might be able to fashion some part of our life story into a working narrative, but at most we’d only be able to squeeze out a couple short novels from the whole of our mortal existence.

But that doesn’t mean we should just completely dismiss the “write what you know” rule. It comes, like so many stupid writing rules, from sound principles: know your subject and check your facts. But I think it goes deeper than that, too, and can apply in a way that’s still as relevant to us as it was to Shakespeare, Twain, et al.—and in fact, it’s a reason why their writing is still so powerful and resonant today.

You have to write what you know—and you have to know people. To create compelling characters and thus compelling stories, as writers, we have to intimately know and understand human behavior and emotions. A story where the protagonist does something that seems stupid, self-contradictory or flat-out foreign all the time is frustrating to a reader.

So we need to know—and continue to study and get to know—people. We have to strive to understand human behavior and motivations, how we can get our characters to act in ways we need them to (or how they’d really act and change our story accordingly ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). We have to understand our characters’ and our readers’ emotions and how to express and appeal to them. (And Larry Brooks agrees!)

And while our lives are likely too narrow and boring to make a good story most of the time, we all understand many of the universal feelings that motivate people—from greed to love to jealousy to anger to joy to grief to heartbreak, we’ve been there in some form. Understanding and remembering our own experiences with these emotions—things that we know—is at the root of creating powerful experiences for the reader.

So do write what you know—but don’t be afraid to make up the rest!

What do you think? In what other ways do you think it’s important to “write what you know”?

Photo by bobcat rock

9 thoughts on “Write what you know”

  1. I think this is especially good advice for writers just starting out – writing what we know means we can focus more on the writing, and less on research. Then as writing becomes more second-nature, (I hope) we can expand the subject matter a little more. Trying to research AND invent everything in a story is just too much for me at this point!

  2. I like to think of it as “write want you *want* to know.”
    IOW if you find something fascinating…do the research, participate in the activity, then write about it.
    This is why I generally don’t write about Marines…don’t care for boot camp.
    But I do sometimes write about people with godlike powers. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. If you write what you know, it’s more likely to come from the heart and will show in the story and be more believable. Youโ€™re more likely to get the emotions, body language and dialogue right too. For instance, if I was to write about flying a plane, I would be totally lost and have to do a lot of research, but even then, I wouldnโ€™t have the passion in the story because Iโ€™ve never flown a plane.

  4. LOL, Don.

    Trish, you have a great point—but I know that you can develop a passion for doing things you’ve never actually done, and experiences you’ve only read about. I think it takes stepping into your character, though, and seeing and feeling their passion for the subject, too.

  5. Don, that’s a funny coincidence. LOL.

    Jordan, I hope I can develop a passion for doing things I’ve never actually done, or the Y/A book I’ve just started won’t work at all. In the two junior fiction novels I’ve already completed, I wrote what I knew, but my characters developed in ways I hadn’t planned and did things I had never done. I usually start a story with something that I know and then see what happens from there. If the story leads to something that I’m not experienced with, I do the research, then I do end up feeling the passion. So your right, Jordan, but I didn’t know how to say it like you did. ๐Ÿ™‚ With the Y/A story I’ve started, it’s totally new to me and I’m not sure if it will work, but I’ll keep going. Hopefully, I’ll find the passion there too.

  6. Even when a writer researches a topic there is always the risk of misusing the accompanying jargon and someone more familiar with the topic will pick that up. I think if we’re writing what we don’t know (or want to know) we would be wise to have someone in that business proofread the ms for us. Writing about Canadian dog shows, for instance, and saying a dog won “Best in Breed” with the coveted blue ribbon would gain the writer ridicule from the knowledgeable. (The award is Best OF Breed which comes with a tri-colour red, white and blue ribbon.) Just sayin’….

  7. Absolutely, Carol—but that can happen even in subjects you’re intimately familiar with, too. It’s always wise to vet your research (“Yeah, it says that in the manual, but what we really do is Y.”).

  8. Mmm, writing what I know would currently mean: diapers, librarians, Sin City, and twins. Oh, and lots of chocolate. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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