Is Writing What You Know Holding You Back?

Cracked earth lightbulb

How the hell did “write what you know become” the most opt-repeated piece of writing advice anyway?

Maybe it’s because it’s the first advice many of us ever received.  Certainly it seems like it should be beginner advice.

I can see it perfectly: a student of sixteen or seventeen hunched over his/her desk at school, pencil in hand poised above a sheet of three-hole-punched, lined loose leaf.

(Am I totally dating myself with this memory in longhand?  Do high school students even write by hand  in school anymore?  The pencil in this vision isn’t even mechanical).

This student is in the middle of English Lit class and has just been informed by the teacher that it’s creative writing time.  “Write a story,” the teacher instructs, and the student furrows his/her brow in frustration.

“I don’t know what to write.”

“Don’t worry about it, just write about something you know.”

Don’t know much about…

To be sure, such advice is a great jumping off point for when one’s grasp of the principles and skills of writing craft are still new.  There’s already enough to keep straight at that point without having to come up with an entirely new treatment of a subject on top of that.

But upon becoming an adult and having lived a whole lot more of life, I find that “write what you know” definitely offers diminishing returns of effectiveness.

Largely because I don’t know sh*t.

One of the many joys of growing older, aside from slower recovery time from injuries and having people start to call me “ma’am”, is the realization that I don’t know nearly as much as I once thought I did – that when it comes to the people and events and concepts that shape the world around me, life is full of an ever-increasing number of shades of grey and alternate ways to see and perceive and experience.

And that’s the stuff I at least know a little bit about.  There are also things in life of which I haven’t the foggiest firsthand experience – things I’m nonetheless curious about and want to explore.

Because that’s pretty much my thing when it comes to writing and why I do it: to explore concepts, to clarify my position upon them, and to convey that position to whomever cares to read it.

Room for expansion

“Write what you know”, in my opinion, is a limitation.  It’s an apologia to only tell stories about places you’ve been, people you’ve known, emotions you’ve felt, ideas you’ve already grappled with and settled in your mind.

“Write what you know” isn’t a call to expand your imagination; it’s permission to go stagnant.

“Write what you know” is part of the reason for the rampant under-representation in media, holding back writers who want to include diverse characters and settings by wrongly making them feel like they don’t have to right.

It fuels the sort of thinking like that of award-winning YA author Andrew Smith, who, in a recent interview, when asked why there are so few women in his books, stated (more than a little incongruously):

I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

I’ve never been more conflicted by an ostensibly sexist quote in my life.

I practically find myself wishing he’d just come out and said, “Women suck and writing them sounds less fun than a root canal.”

That would’ve likewise ticked me off, don’t get me wrong; I remember being annoyed when David Gilmour, a University of Toronto English professor – i.e. an arbiter of higher learning, thought, and inquiry – said he was disinterested in teaching books by female authors in his class.

But at least Gilmour was brave enough to make a stand, which I can sort of respect (sort of, kind of, I guess, if I squint and tilt my head just so.)

What I hear in Smith’s quote, though, is that he’s not against writing female characters, but doesn’t think he can.  Because he feels he doesn’t know women.

So he’s sticking to writing about what he knows.

Search and research

Lightbulbs in grassThe solution to “write what you know” is research.  All stories require some manner of study anyway to get the little details right, so why not keep going.

Be it through reference books and websites, travelling, or just meeting new people and talking them about their experiences, the world opens like an oyster when a writer goes searching for new inspiration.

Here is a partial list of things I don’t personally know but made a point of learning so I could write about them:

  • Being married
  • Pregnancy and giving birth
  • Domestic violence
  • Suffering a debilitating injury
  • The struggles of a man trying to live up to his father’s expectations
  • Being poisoned
  • Riding a horse
  • Dying

I run a writers’ social group that meets regularly and to which new members are always welcome. Whenever new members do come, I always ask everyone to introduce themselves by saying their name and the type of writing they do.

There is one fellow who, from his very first meeting (he is now a regular), replied to the question of what he writes with a resounding “I write what I want to write!”

To this day, I applaud that answer every time I hear it, for it’s the sort of answer all writers need to both give and feel.  Write what you want to write.  Write what you want to know about, or play with, or express to the world.

Don’t let what you know (and more importantly, what you don’t know) hold you back.

What are your thoughts on the advice to “write what you know”?  Do you follow it?  Why or why not?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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9 thoughts on “Is Writing What You Know Holding You Back?

  1. Well observed Janna. That is the most bonkers advice that I’ve ever read – and I’m always reading it. I if wrote what I knew it would be a very short and uninteresting story.

    The converse though is that you don’t insult your readers by getting stuff wrong. Get it right. There are no excuses. If you have any doubts get people to check it. A while back you critiqued a chapter for me – written in the first person through the voice of a young Indian girl, set in rural India. That one is still part-complete but what I have written has been crawled over by a female Indian editor. It would be nuts to let it go out without having it reviewed and corrected as necessary.

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    • If we truly all only wrote what we knew, only people with very exciting lives would ever sell any books!

      And you’re absolutely right about getting people to check your work. Even if you are writing what you know, external feedback is invaluable. We all have our blind spots.

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  2. Writing what you know is fine when you first start out because it offers a comfortable way to break into writing, but after that if you wavy to grow into a great writer you need to expand your mindset and write what you don’t know. Write outside of you comfort zone so that things always stay fresh. Great post!! 🙂

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  3. I have never been a movie star, much less an Irish one, much less one about to become one of the few such in the world who commands upward of $25MILLION for a movie role. But I write one (carefully and with much trepidation).

    I have this thing they call imagination? So I have cobbled together a lifetime of bits about the Irish (love the accent), movies (I have watched every Featurette on the Making of… ever put on one of my DVDs), actors (watched many of those interview they do on TV and show you for free!), acting (yup – a couple of classes way back when, and being the lead in a play in high school, in Spanish, in Mexico, in the last century), extroverts (definitely not one of those, though two of my sisters fall in that category), rich people (know some – sister knows many more), and a director I met once for a two-line exchange – plus research, a book on indie movie-making, and a huge dollop of chutzpah (sp?) = voila, one of my main characters.

    It’s not that hard if you have an eclectic mind that never throws anything away: the bits hide in the shadows and mate, and give birth to ideas.

    I guess that’s a ‘no’ to your question. Good question.

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    • Through writing, we get the chance to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, the people we are through not on a regular basis, and the people we might someday become. I’ve never been a medieval noblewoman, but I have this thing called imagination as well. That along with the fact that when you strip away all the external trappings, we’re all only human and mostly the same should inspire a writer to write anything and everything.

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      • With research and intelligence – both in short supply in some cases – but yes. Why not?

        I know of a woman who is doing so much research, and creating a wonderful fantasy world – but has only managed a short story or two in it.

        I think she is spending her energy unwisely.

        When I create my world (a version of 2005) and write in it, I think of it as the world having depth beyond the story of about a flashlight’s beam – in all directions. That’s all I need to write, the feeling that there’s more beyond that I’m not telling you, but I don’t have to show you that – we create further and deeper as we go, in the direction we go.

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      • I like the visual image of that – a flashlight beam illuminating the areas of your worldbuilding focus and leaving the rest in either dimly lit shadows or complete darkness. Your readers do have the advantage, though, of having lived through 2005; they can draw upon a lot of their own experiences of that year to fill in the blanks. For me, I have to lay out a bit more of the set decoration and ethos of the time in order to convey some of that foreignness of the past that L.P. Hartley remarked upon, yet without over world-building like your friend. As all things in writing, it is a delicate balance.

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      • Exactly – but don’t build more world than you need, plus a bit more in front of the flashlight beam, in case you want to make changes as you go.

        Nobody really remembers 2005 except in generalities, and it allows me to insert my characters into a slightly historical background where they might have been.

        To disprove many of the things I create, you’d have to actually go look them up – and who wants to do that? Plausibility is good enough if it doesn’t materially affect the outcome.

        To make the plausible real, pick tiny details – but really use them. Generalities are not useful. One of my (book) teachers said that two specific details, maybe three, are all you need. I get many of them from considering the senses – using either three of the same sense, or one each of three different senses. Any more than that and you have gone too literary – and are spending writing time on details, not story. Fine if that’s what you’re doing, on purpose. Not fine if you want subtle background.

        Delicate balance exactly – the writer’s instinct is honed by many good and bad examples from other people’s writing. And then we find out own.

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