“Write What You Know” and Other Lies

When you’re learning how to be a writer or gathering informtion and tips, there are a few pieces of advice that like to be recycled. One of them is the popular ‘write what you know’ phrase. It’s purpose is that if you want your writing to be believable or for a reader to trust your writing, then you need to be writing about something you have personal experience with. You need to stick to what you know so you’re writing is real. I’ve never understood this mentality. Maybe I’m seeing it all wrong. If you don’t lead an exciting, adventure-filled life though, how will writing what you know be any interesting? Isn’t that what fiction is for? To break away from the reality you know and create circumstances and worlds that aren’t real?

I think this phrase can still work if it’s tweaked a little. Writing what you know isn’t about actual events, places, or people. It doesn’t apply to your epic dystopian world, your no-way-that-vampires-are-real characters, or even your book’s bloody battle for the freedom of the kingdom, or whatever else you may be writing about. It’s how you depict those things. It’s making your character’s believable, developing their arcs plausibly, conveying their relationships truthfully, and making their inner and outer struggles something we can believe in and even connect with. The one thing readers, writers, and characters in books have in common is that we are human. So what really matters when you get down to it is that the writer creates their characters in a way that the reader understands.

Writing what you know then is easy. Your characters may be in some imaginary world, dealing with problems real people have never faced, or they may even be someone in the real world, but the most important thing is that the reader believes them. They understand why they think the way they do, why they’ve made the choices they have, why they react a certain way. They believe the relationships you’ve generated. In the end, it’s the people of your story that need to be real. You don’t need to have lived the actual events in order to write them convincingly. The topics of my three books, for example, are loosely this: child abuse and bullying, high school in-crowd power stuggles and secret romances, and kidnapping and survival. Have I lived through any of these things personally? No. Does that mean my books are all crap and I have no right to create them? I sure hope not.

Write Daily

This isn’t horrible advice, but it’s not necessary. Some people say if you want to be a writer you need to be writing every day. I disagree. Sometimes taking a healthy step away from the computer is just as beneficial as sitting in front of it for X amount of hours. Writing for the sake of writing isn’t helpful creatively. If you’re sitting down to write just becaue you think you have to in order to be successful, you’re doing it wrong. You need to believe in what you’re writing and want to put it out there. If you’re following prompts and excercises, that’s great, keep at it. Inspiration can be found there and jump start your creativity. But if you sit down and say “I’m going to write” then stare blankly at your screen or force out words that you don’t even care about, what was the point in making yourself write that day? Give yourself a break and write when you are compelled.

Set a Word Count Goal

No. The word count is not your friend. It’s a nagging, evil little tool that will make you hate yourself at some point or another. Maybe you think your story is perfect as it, but it’s 500 words shy of the word count. Or maybe it’s 1000 words too long. What are you willing to cut, add, or rework into your story? Those aren’t bad things. Cutting, adding, and reworking are good. They are necessary. What isn’t is forcing yourself to write X number of words a day. What scares me about that is that you will be more concerned with the number of words you write and less concerned about the quality of them. There’s a quote I read by Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, that simply says, “Words count, not word count.” I wrote that down and taped it to the top of my monitor as a reminder. It’s good advice.

Do you disagree with any of these tips? Did I miss the mark? Do you have any tips to add, either helpful or overused? Post below!

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5 responses to ““Write What You Know” and Other Lies

  1. Pingback: Processing My Fiction – Are the Number of Story Words the New Page Number? | Felipe Adan Lerma

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  4. Cait

    Yes! Exactly! I’ve always disliked the “write what you know” advice. It’s equally annoying as “teens shouldn’t write because they don’t have enough life experience”. Gaaah. Who thinks of those things? I think they’re hopelessly misinformed. I agree that it’s difficult to, say, write about cancer if you don’t have cancer and have never been in contact with people who have…but you can research. You can talk to people. It’s part of the experience, really.
    Great post! 🙂

    • Thank you for responding! I’m glad you agree. You make some great points. It might be hard to convey something we haven’t experienced, but you’re right that’s what research, creativity, and talking to others are for. It is part of the writing process.

      Oh that’s a good one to add! Some teens have more life experience than a lot of adults! And just because they’re younger doesn’t mean they aren’t still intelligent or capable of writing something wonderful. Another book I read this year called Break by Hannah Moskowitz has an author bio in the back that states “If all goes well, Hannah Moskowitz will be out of high school by the time you read this” implying she wrote it while in high school and thus was a teen at the time. It’s a great book. Claims like that about teens not being able to write are just silly and unfounded.

      Thanks for your input!

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