Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Misused Advice: Write What You Know

Great advice taken too far

Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Every piece of advice that we’re going to talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin but has evolved into something either misused or something inviolable. “Write what you  know” is the latter, especially in the last decade. In itself, “write what you know” is great advice because an experienced voice brings more depth to the work, but it’s been taken a little too far.


This phrase-turned-rule started with the illustrious Mark Twain, at least as far as I can find, though he wasn’t one to follow it himself in all aspects. “Write what you know” has become so limiting that, to be frank, often writers are left with boring stories and thinly veiled self-insertion because not all of us are privileged enough to have lived wild lives.

The biggest misinterpretation

The main issue I’ve found when it comes to the advice of “write what you know,” is that it’s taken too literally. Of course, you should write what you know, because it enriches your story. We all want that; we all want to really feel like we’re in that situation. 

For example, if I wrote a dystopian story where one of the plot points was the threat of a nuclear missile coming toward your location, I could easily translate the terror of thinking you’re going to have your face melted off, because I’ve lived through a fallacious warning of an impending missile strike. That can really bring depth to the work that could be lacking from someone who didn’t go through the same situation. 

But—but, that shouldn’t stop you from writing the same situation and asking someone if they have any insight they can give you to make your work more realistic. There are thousands of brilliantly written books with situations that are currently implausible, like Watership Down with its talking rabbits or the Outlander series with time travel. 

Limited experiences shouldn’t be an excuse for limiting creativity. I think Chuck Palahniuk said it best: “People who say ‘write what you know’ are afraid to make shit up.” 

Research is key

We don’t know everything. 

We won’t ever know everything—it’s literally impossible to know the ins and outs of everything to bring a semblance of realism to our books. So when writing what you don’t know, research is going to be key to bring in that realism. I’m not saying you need to be an expert in whatever field you’re writing in unless the fancy strikes you, but at least Google enough to not have egg on your face. Or find someone who knows more about the subject than yourself (like for myself, knowing nothing about horses whatsoever, am utilizing both Google and hippophiles to help me make sure I don’t put something ridiculously inaccurate in my work).

Another key aspect is respecting the subject you're researching. If you want to write about a religion or culture that isn’t your own, like A4A co-founder Renee Frey in her upcoming novel One Thousand and One Days, finding sensitivity readers will be a must. They will not only help you bring accurate information to your work but can also impart some personal experience to help enrich the world you’re writing about.

So what’s it really about?

Really, I think “write what you know,” started as writing in what you know in terms of adding emotional depth to your story. In the situations that are implausible for our world, emotional depth is really what’s going to make your story stick with your readers for a long, long time. It’s something your readers can bond with and relate to, even if it isn’t something that they’ve experienced themselves. 

And that, my friends, is our job as writers. 

Join us next week for an author interview with A4A author Diane Anthony, and in two weeks when we resume our series on plot archetypes, where we talk about the comedy plot archetype.

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