What Does ‘Write What You Know’ Actually Mean?
‘Write what you know,’ said my English teacher.
I was ten, and I’d just swum with dolphins, so that’s what I wrote about.
But I also read and watched a lot of fantasy. Surely those people weren’t writing what they knew?
Or were they?
‘Write what you know,’ is the kind of advice given by English teachers the world over.
It’s often given at beginner creative writing classes too.
But should you write what you know?
And, if you do, how literally should you take this piece of common writing advice?
So, should you write what you know?
Well, sort of.
What makes all great stories isn’t the plot, or the characters, or really the writing style.
It’s the way that the emotions the characters experience through your plot is expressed in your writing style.
Sometimes the characters are poorly developed, but if they’re going through relatable emotions, readers are more likely to cling to them.
Take Fifty Shades of Grey. While its literary merit can be argued, most of us have wanted to be swept off our feet by someone with lots of money and have amazing sex at some point in our lives. (Don’t lie to me and say that you don’t want lots of money and/or amazing sex.) For most of us, a story like that is no different than a story about elves or witches: it’s a fantasy.
The same rule can be applied to Harry Potter.
None of us have been to Hogwarts (sadly), but we all know about the excitement of getting into the school or university you really want and having amazing friends. Some of us know what it’s like to grow up without parents, too.
We relate to what Harry is thinking and feeling even though we’ll never go through the same things that he does.
Great—and popular—writing comes from emotions.
To write them effectively, we must first experience them.
However, for some things—such as the loss of a loved one—we may not have direct experience.
Then what do you do?
How to write about emotions you have no experience with
There are thousands of emotions that we feel in our lives.
We don’t always have the right words to express them, either.
So, if we don’t have the right words, how can you possibly write about them?!
Well, in actual fact, it’s good practice to not use the words for them.
Hollie was angry.
Hollie ground her teeth together as her hands curled into fists.
We don’t hear it, we see it.
We get much more of an insight into the type of character that she is and what makes her unique.
If what comes before or after goes on to talk about why she’s angry, we find out even more about her as a person.
So we’re not using the names of emotions to describe them.
But how do you know what those emotions look like?
What they feel like?
You can’t get into your characters’ heads properly if you don’t know.
Do your research
Research what the situation you’re writing about feels like.
No matter what it is, someone will have written about their personal experience somewhere—you just have to look.
If you’re writing something with a really convoluted plot, take away the complications and simplify it down.
If you’re writing a crime novel, for example, research the way police officers think and feel when finding a suspect, a suspect gets away, etc.
Research how they’re trained to handle each scenario (because they are trained to handle pretty much anything).
You’d be surprised how often people don’t want to ask for help. But unless you ask for help, you’ll never get it.
There are lots of places you can ask for help:
- Forums such as Reddit
- Social media—there are hashtags and communities for most things
- Community groups
- Companies (some let you tail them or are happy to answer questions, such as local police forces)
Be mindful when talking with people, though—not everyone will be comfortable sharing every detail.
If they’re uncomfortable, don’t push them—they’re doing you a favour.
It’s important that you keep that in mind and remember to be polite.
Extra points if you can show gratitude in some way, even if that’s just by buying them a coffee.
What about genres?
There is one occasion when you really and truly need to write what you know, and that’s when it comes to the genre(s) that you write in.
Genre readers have expectations.
If you don’t understand what they are, you’re going to be left with disappointed readers and poor reviews.
While the pain of a bad review is an inevitable part of being a writer, you don’t want to upset your readers by writing something that goes completely against the traditions of the genre.
Some people stick to reading certain genres for a reason—they know what to expect, and it becomes their safe space. You take that away from someone, and it doesn’t end well.
If you’ve never read an epic fantasy novel, how can you possibly write a 1000-page epic fantasy novel? You have no idea what’s involved in one.
As Stephen King says:
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.
As well as reading books within the genre, read books about the genre. Most popular genres have books like this. There’ll be plenty of blog posts for each genre, too.
As you do your research, make notes of patterns that you see. What stands out to you? What works? What doesn’t?
Research is useful for other areas of genre writing, too. For example, if you’re writing about hellhounds, knowing about wolves and dogs is helpful. For unicorns, knowing about horses comes in handy.
Much like all advice, writing what you know is open to interpretation.
By all means experiment with it, but know that you don’t have to take it literally.
Take it with a grain of salt.
Trust your instincts.
After all, they’re your characters and it’s your story. Nobody can take that away from you.
Over to You
How do you feel about the classic writing advice, ‘write what you know’? What’s your take on it? Let me know in the comments!