“Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to
‘Write What You Know’,
which explains why so many mediocre novels are about
English professors contemplating adultery.”
You hear this from many corners: Write what you know.
But – what is it that you KNOW?
If you take this literary, does that mean you can’t write about grief if you’ve never lost someone close to you? Does it mean you can’t write about betrayal if you’ve never been deceived?
I know a few writers who react to this statement in that way. So I ask (again): What is it that you KNOW?
“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”
~~ Howard Nemerov
Writers are naturally curious. Or that’s my impression from the hundreds I’ve met. Writers seem to love learning. Many have a wide range of life experiences. There’s nothing wrong with writing from your experiences. That’s a great start.
Many writers take their own experiences and expand those into new directions. Much advice is given to newbie writers about starting with your own experiences when creating your first stories. This is valuable advice.
One of the gifts that’s helpful to a writer is being able to put yourself into other situations and be able to make those emotional connections that one would feel in a given situation. Actors do this—well, the great one do. Writers can and do take advantage of this also.
“Most beginning writers – and I was the same – are like chefs trying to cook great dishes that they’ve never tasted themselves. How can you make a great – or even an adequate – bouillabaisse if you’ve never had any? If you don’t really understand why people read mysteries – or romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever – then there’s no way in the world you’re going to write one that anyone wants to publish. This is the meaning of the well-known expression “Write what you know.”
~~ Daniel Quinn
The statement, write what you know, has been used so much that it has become cliché. And yes, it is open to many interpretations. What I’m suggesting is that writers try to see beyond the simplest meaning, whatever form that might take.
“You write what you know because—like there’s another choice? The trick is to try and know as much as possible.”
~~ Lois McMaster Bujold
Some have explained the statement to mean what interests you or what you are passionate about. Whether you see this side of the meaning or not, writing what you’re passionate about helps to put fire into your words, and that tumbles down to impact your readers.
Don’t listen to anyone else, but look inside yourself to discover what ignites your own fires.
I’m not saying you should ignore the market. Every writer should understand what’s doing well in the genres he or she writes. But that doesn’t mean you have to write to those markets. (Repeat this last sentence at least three times.)
Sometimes publishers and agents are looking for what’s selling, but they are always looking for good stories, no matter if that’s a hot topic or not. And you never know—your story might be the one that will start the new hot trend.
“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”
~~ P. J. O’Rourke
Maybe you have something you NEED to say or write about. Something you feel strong enough about that you want others to experience this in some way. Writing from a need is similar to writing from your interests or passion.
The only caution I would give to those who write from a need is to make sure you don’t come across as preachy or like you’re giving a lecture. One of the primary functions of fiction is to entertain, and that what most readers are expecting.
“Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will
catch fire at your words.”
~~ Valerie Sherwood
Some have attributed the quote “write what you know” to Mark Twain or to William Faulkner. Twain also said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
What you write about concerns people. What you write about are human emotions and the human condition. Even if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, this is still true. The connection you are building between story and reader needs to be an emotional one. In my opinion, my dear writer friends, this is writing what you know.
CHALLENGE: What’s your understanding of the quote “write what you know”?