Know What You Write

Writing what you know is overused and often-ignored advice, but when looked at differently it can be beneficial.

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When I started writing fiction, I had no idea what I was doing. Like most new and fledgling writers, I told a story I wanted to tell in my own way, all whilst trying to be clever and original. As I got started, I thought it might be worth seeking out some advice—or, at least, guidance—on how to go about writing well. I wanted to be proud of what I wrote.

As with any skill, writing fiction to a good standard means undertaking a learning curve. I had to start from base ability level and then learn the skills to hone my craft.

The first piece of advice I saw was: write what you know. I immediately questioned this. Frank Herbert had not been to an alien desert planet populated by giant worms, yet he wrote Dune. Anne Rice had not interviewed a three-hundred-year-old vampire, but she could write a fictional interview with one. How was it that I had to write only what I knew, yet others could imagine strange and exciting new things?

Looking into the advice, however, meant not taking it at face value. Frank Herbert was on location researching sand dunes, with only sand to look at, when he came up with the idea for Dune. Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire—where a vampire recounts a tale that leads to the death of his adopted daughter—after her own child had died. When beginning these novels, the authors did not know everything about them, but they initially came from a place of reality.

Perhaps the phrasing of the guidance is at fault. Instead of write what you know, maybe the advice should read know what you write. That frees the writer to create anything, yet means they will research and create with depth instead of just glossing over the surface of something inane.

Knowing what you write can mean starting a story—or an idea—with something you already know. Yet your gender as a writer does not dictate the gender of your characters, nor should it prevent you writing from different viewpoints. Your age, class, race, heritage, ability or disability, relationship status or history, education, career, life choices, or any other factor in your real life does not limit what you can write or the perspectives you can empathise with. However, to write from a different point-of-view to your own, you need to know what you are writing about. Research, talk to people, understand experiences, change your own perspective, and you will know what you write. Then you can write what you know, as you will have learnt more. Otherwise, you run the increased risk of writing insensitively, or relying on cheap tropes and overused clichés or stereotypes.

Writing what you know is entirely dependent on what you know, which is a variable you can change. It should not limit your scope as a writer, but instead empower you to write more and better. Know what you write, and let what you write be fantastic.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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