One of the greatest things an author can do, especially a master of the craft, is pass on the information they’ve learned to the next generation of writers. Unfortunately, these words of wisdom are often taken out of context.
“Write what you know.” – sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, although this quote is untraceable and likely predates Twain by quite a bit.
The quote you see above is perhaps the most classic writing adage we’ve got. It’s one of the first quotes you’ll stumble across when researching storytelling, and rightfully so.
But it can be maddening, especially to a fledgling writer who is frustrated and looking for easy advice.
People in writing communities can get strangely livid about this one, but it doesn’t stop there. I’ve seen covers of writing magazines proclaim things like – ‘Should We Really Write what We Know?’. Author John Irving was quoted as saying, in 2012, the “write-what-you-know dictum has no place in imaginative literature”. Even writing professors sometimes misinterpret this quote and tell their students to ignore it entirely.
- You must telegraph your exact life experiences into your writing.
- All fictional stories are just autobiographies in disguise.
- It is impossible to write science fiction, fantasy, supernatural fiction, or even period pieces if you only ‘write what you know’, therefore this quote is false and can be disregarded.
- This quote only applies to non-fiction.
- Don’t write about things you’ve never experienced. ex: Don’t write about a P.I. if you’re not a career detective. Don’t write about surgery if you’re not a doctor. Don’t write about sex if you’ve never experienced it.
The intended meaning:
Write what you know is all about emotions, taking your life experiences and channeling them as if you were a method actor.
Ever been yelled at? How did that make you feel?
Ever yelled at someone? Stolen something? Dealt with a bully? Maybe you haven’t.
Ever been at the unfair end of an unfair decision?
Do you know what it’s like being destitute? Homeless? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.
“…writers gotta have experiences, like underpasses.” – Sara from The Maxx.
So let’s say you realize one of your characters must die, and the loss is going to be tough for everyone involved. OK – so maybe you’ve never experienced the loss of someone close to you. But you can channel the saddest moment in your life and let those emotions spill out onto the page.
If you’ve never ridden a horse a day in your life but your characters deal with horses every single day, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to do a little research or even spend some time with horses. You don’t have to, of course. You could take what you already know and apply it instead. Maybe you’ve taken care of a household pet, maybe you have knowledge about riding a motorcycle, or even know what it feels like to have the wind whip your hair around. Certainly you’ve seen movies where people tend and ride horses, right? That’s familiarity, that’s research, that’s knowledge.
Just as you can write about Russia without ever having been there or can write a story about World War II even if you weren’t alive to see it, you can write about riding horses without ever having ridden one yourself. But why not find a beta reader you trust that does have a lot of experience with horses? If they teach you what they know, then you’ll know it, too. And you can use that knowledge to fuel your writing going forward.
Contrary to the John Irving quote mentioned earlier, ‘Write what you know’ is perhaps the single most important piece of advice available when it comes to writing fiction, especially genre fiction. Creating a fantasy world, for instance, requires verisimilitude and a careful balance to suspend the reader’s disbelief. These emotions, these life experiences, writing what you know, will be the glue that holds your world together, making less believable things – such as magic – far more believable within the context of your world.
So it’s not about writing about your specific life experiences (Otherwise all my characters would be males who grew up playing video games in a small-town-Reaganomics-1980′s-Midwest-North-American household. Wouldn’t that be fun?), it’s about writing all manner of things while using your past experiences to your advantage. This is the key to making your stories believable – even if they’re grounded in unreality. And most importantly, it teaches us to pay attention to the world around us. If we want our writing to improve, we must keep learning.
All this in just four words.