Writing Advice: On “Write What You Know”

“Write what you know” is one of those pieces of advice that means well, but often leads to some anxiety for newer writers. Writers are generally expected, encouraged, and self-motivated to imagine experiences and worlds outside of their own lives, and populate those things with characters that are different from the writers themselves.

That’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s what makes fiction writers tick.

And yet, you’re told that you should “write what you know.”

– Bill Watterson, “Calvin and Hobbes”

Inevitably, there is going to be some spillover, and elements from a writer’s personality, experiences, etc., are going to appear in their stories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Real life experiences, thoughts and emotions can lend themselves to fiction, helping to build layers of complexity and add a sense of realism to even the loftiest fantasies. They can help ground characters, punch up scenes, and incite intriguing plots. When used appropriately, a writer’s reality can be a very powerful tool. That’s not to say that you should saturate your work with your everyday life, but bits and pieces used (sparingly) in the correct places can pack a punch. And, since these are your experiences, thoughts, ideals, etc., you understand them at a much more intimate level than you would otherwise. That understanding is what writers try to harness when they set out to follow the old adage “write what you know.” Worked into the details, this is what makes characters feel alive to readers.

Be aware, however, that your knowledge is, in almost every instance, going to be limited.

Writing what you know is a decent starting place. It’s a good jumping off point, and can serve as the foundation for your work. But the best writers are often the best learners. They pay attention to the world around them, to the experiences, reactions, and emotions of other people, and they try to understand how someone other than themselves would experience the world. They don’t look at the world and say, “I know enough. I don’t need to know any more.” They don’t stop learning.

If all you know is superficial information and stereotypes, that is all that you are likely to write. Your capacity as a writer is limited by the extent of your knowledge, and like it or not, we are always writing what we know, whether we realize it or not. Which does NOT mean that it’s impossible to write about experiences, emotions, etc., outside of our own (far from it!), but it does mean that when we set out to write characters that are different from ourselves, we are going to have our limits.

– Holli True

They weren’t kidding when they said, “Knowledge is power,” whoever they are.

The more you know, the more you can write, and write well. While it’s perfectly understandable that there will be many, many things that any given person cannot possibly know or even be aware of throughout their life, writers should seek to shorten the disconnect between themselves and the other.

In short, don’t limit yourself by willingly limiting your understanding of the world. Write what you know because that’s really all you can do, but always try to expand your knowledge. Don’t be afraid to experiment and explore.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Advice: On “Write What You Know”

  1. I agree with you entirely. People often use the phrase “write what you know” in a way that limits their capacity to write about lives and experiences that might be removed from their own. Research is an important aspect of writing work that can connect to a broad variety of people, not just you.

  2. Well said, especially that last bit. Research is exactly what will help you connect to your audience on a deeper level, sometimes in surprising and wonderful ways.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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