Write what you know?
It’s hard to think of a writing cliche more prevalent than, “Write what you know!” The problem is that it’s not well understood and that confusion has lead many a would-be writer astray. Should you write what you know? Well, yes and no.
The following is an adapted excerpt from Building a Writing Life: start a writing habit, find time to write, discover your process and commit to your writing dreams available now in paperback and eBook.
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Write what you know
The roots of this expression come from the poor writer with no idea what to write, desperately scrounging around for a topic. Along comes a friend with sensible comfort: Write what you know! Make it easy on yourself and dig into the wealth of your own experiences, expertise, and memories to find your stories., no one else in the whole history of the world has lived your exact life, and that makes your perspective unique!
It’s meant to be a helpful tip. After all, if you work as a barista, it makes sense that it’ll be easier for you to write about a character that’s also a barista than a nuclear physicist. You already have the first-hand experience to color your story, the insider knowledge of the world, and a familiar point of view to write from. Writing what you know is efficient, more comfortable, and means less research and legwork.
For this reason, it’s an excellent idea to keep a list of things you know to add to your idea collection. Things you consider yourself an expert in, sure, but also your identity. The sum of your lived experiences and circumstances also tally up into what you know. This list provides another resource for inspiration and a place to dive for ideas whenever you want to write what you know.
The problem with write what you know
But like anything so oft-repeated, this phrase has a bad reputation. Without context, many a writer hears, “Write what you know” and thinks it means that’s all they can write. With this reading, this advice feels like an edict from the writing gods on high and is incredibly limiting.
Of course, you can write well beyond what you know. You can imagine worlds that never existed, you can research those that did, you can understand someone nothing like you through sensitive study and the power of empathy. Could you imagine what a boring world it would be if we were all only limited to writing what we had experienced firsthand?
Write what you know.
Write what you don’t.
Write it all.
There are no limits.
Mutate what you know
If you’re still feeling tentative about writing what you don’t know, let me share a trick I like to call “mutate what you know.” It means taking the things you know and mutating them into something else.
I have never ridden a dragon. I have no idea what it feels like to be on one’s back when it bursts into the sky or to give it an affectionate scratch after a good flight. I have never felt dragon fire bursting from my mount’s mouth. Dragon riding is definitely not something that I know.
I have, however, ridden horses since I was small. I have felt a horse breathing under my legs. I know how to shift my weight when I feel it plant its legs before we launch into the air over a jump. I have also hung out with my friend’s very chill lizard and watched its eyes half close when I tickled the soft scales under its chin. I have been too close to my parent’s old barbecue when I finally got the darn thing to light, and I had to jump clear of the sudden fire.
There are all things I know and know well. I know how these moments smell, sound, and feel to the touch. A dozen real sensations I have experienced… and I bet you can already see how I could mutate each of them just a little to show you a scene of dragon-riding that felt real.
The things you know are tools at your disposal. They aren’t your only tools, but they can still be handy in a surprising number of ways. The more you experience, the more you know, the more you have to draw from when you write. So don’t just write what you know, but always work to increase the scope of what you know and grow your creative toolbox.