Write What You Like: Why “Write What You Know” Is Bad Advice
The primary requirement for being a writer is being told to “Write what you know” at least sixteen times. The secondary requirement is a gnawing anxiety about the future of publishing, but that’s a topic for another day.
“Write what you know” is one of the cardinal rules of writing, a tip that’s as widely quoted as “I before E, except after C.” And just like that bit of spelling advice, it’s more often wrong than right.
It’s obvious — but still worth pointing out — that all speculative genres wouldn’t exist if writers only wrote what they have personally experienced. Tolkien would have published an Anglo-Saxon dictionary instead of a fantasy epic, and Asimov would have stuck to physics texts (of which he still wrote more than a few) instead of writing dozens of stories about sentient robots. Even traditional literature features plenty of people and places the authors have never personally known.
The core of “Write what you know” is good. People mean well when they say it. But too often writers, especially new writers, are paralyzed by interpreting it literally. Just because everyone says something doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. People who eat an apple a day still have to visit a doctor on occasion, after all.
When people tell you to write what you know, they don’t mean you should only write scenarios you’ve personally experienced. If this were the case, we’d only have books about accountants trying to get published in their spare time to stave off the gaping void inside them. Or books about a family practice physician who steadily pays off his student loans while hoping for a patient who has swallowed a Lego brick just to break up the monotony of flu patients.
So what did all those English teachers mean when they said “Write what you know” over and over again? Here are three rules that embody the essence of “Write what you know,” but are much easier (and more useful!) to take literally.
Write What You Like
This is the true cardinal rule of writing. It doesn’t matter what’s popular in the bookstore. It doesn’t matter what your professor told you was acceptable. It doesn’t matter what any number of other writers and readers think you should write about. Write about things you find interesting. If that means you like interdimensional space slugs that eat algae fondue, don’t worry about never having met an extraterrestrial, or the fact that you clearly prefer chocolate to algae. Focusing on what interests you will make your writing better. No matter what you write, there will be someone out there who enjoys the same things.
Do Your Research
It’s okay to write about things you don’t know firsthand, but you must learn enough about the topic to sound knowledgeable. Even if you’re making up a completely new world, there are elements of life, technology, and culture that you can glean from our humble existence. And if you’re writing about something real, something that other people know firsthand, then you darn well better get it right.
Be Observant of Emotion
You’ll be writing about relationships you’ve never had, and personalities you’ve never experienced, no matter how bad you are at romance or how many personalities you’re harboring in that little writer skull of yours. Fortunately there are examples of real emotion all around. You’ve experienced joy and anger; you’ve seen others experience grief and glee and everything in between. Pay attention and use this to make the characters in your stories more believable, no matter the setting or scenario.
There, now you’ve got something better to quote when people want writing advice. And what we lost in brevity we made up in … words.
What other common writing advice needs an update? Let us know in the comments.
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