I hate being told to write what I know. It truly is the single worst piece of advice that you can ever give a writer and there are a couple of different reasons why it is actually harmful to writers, especially writers who are trying to start out.
Sure, if you’re a detective in the NYPD and want to write a novel about a detective in the NYPD writing what you know is a good thing, but what about the rest of us? My life is pretty boring in comparison, I work in an office during the day – should I only write about what that’s like? The vast majority of us have very pedestrian lives and writing can be a way that we escape that and travel to much more exciting and interesting things and allow readers who exist in the same world to experience something different. Not to mention how fantasy or sci-fi wouldn’t exist if we all stuck to what we know.
The problem with the advice is that what is actually meant by it is that you should transpose your own experiences and reactions to certain situations into your writing. It’s hard to write about the emotional impact of finding your spouse cheating on you if you’ve never personally experienced it. It’s harder to convey that authentically and in a way that would resonate with a reader. Harder. Not impossible. Not even hard if I’m honest, just harder than if you have experienced it personally. The main reason I dislike the advise is because of this. By saying write what you know you’re trying to tell writers that they should use their own experiences in their writing to make it more authentic, what they hear varies massively depending on what they’re understanding of writing is. Writers should be encouraged to explore different aspects of writing and try different things, this advice firmly encourages people to stay in what they know.
My other reason for disliking the advice, even the true meaning behind it, is that it’s not hard to understand things that you have never experienced yourself. Imagination and empathy can carry you a long way into this understanding, but there’s also countless accounts these days where you can hear and see the emotions and reactions of people who have experienced things that you want to write about. Even on the practical side of things, I can write a murder mystery thriller from the perspective of a police officer just as convincingly as a police officer can, it’s just harder for me because I’d have to research the procedure and the real world, practical aspects of how it all works. But I can research it. With the explosion of the Internet and social media and every person being able to share their experiences with the world, we writers should be encouraged to explore aspects of the world that we have no experience of. Even if you don’t use it, it’ll make your writing better overall.
So, stop telling people to write what they know. Tell people to explore the world (virtually, there is still a global pandemic) and write about what they want to write about.
© 2020 Davina Chime
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.