Whether you’re a writer or not, you’ve heard people say “write what you know.” The idea is that you should stick to topics with which you have experience.
Where did this advice come from? Apparently, some attribute it to Hemingway. Although that is not exactly what he said. In fact, it’s a very, very loose interpretation.
“From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” – Hemingway
Others say Ralph Waldo Emerson coined this phrase and it has also been attributed to Mark Twain.
Regardless of who said it, I think this advice is garbage.
Do you think J.R.R. Tolkien lived in a middle earth world? Well, maybe in his head he did. But he didn’t have any direct experience with a nonexistent mystical land. Yes, I may be taking this advice too literally. The idea is to write about concepts and create characters you understand and can fully flesh out. Still, I’d argue there are massive pitfalls and flaws in this tactic. And here’s why.
5 Reasons You SHOULDN’T “Write What You Know”
1. It leads to misinterpretation.
This advice is just plain simplistic. And, like with most things in life, when you try to simplify a complex idea, you end up rendering it meaningless and oftentimes, harmful. The process of writing is complex. And this very simple advice can actually lead to very big misinterpretations.
I read a lot of articles about how people feel about this advice and overwhelmingly many writers stated it confused them and they interpreted it as meaning they needed to write an autobiography. Now, autobiographies can be very interesting. But can you imagine if every single writer took this advice and wrote an autobiography? The aliens who come to conquer us someday or our robot overlords of the future would definitely look back on us as the most narcissistic species of all time.
2. It limits imagination.
I think the idea of telling people to “write what they know” not only sends people straight to the autobiography zone it also discourages people from letting their imaginations run wild. Why bother thinking about that crazy world where people live below ground and get warmth and nourishment from the earth’s core rather than the sun? That’s not writing what you know.
Let’s go back to Tolkien. He came from a family of middle-class craftsmen who made and sold clocks, watches and pianos. What if he decided to just write what he knew and gave us stories of early 1900s clock makers? Then we’d never have the rich middle earth world he created.
Telling writers to limit themselves to only what they know is like telling a musician to only play one song over and over and never try to create a new song. It’s discouraging and counter to the entire concept of fiction writing.
3. It’s boring.
If writers only wrote what they knew, literature would be a very, very mundane and boring field, essentially just filled with non-fiction or fictionalized non-fiction. Those types of books are great. However, too much of a good thing is still too much.
If you’re going to write what you know, write a non-fiction book. If you’re going to write fiction, you need to expand beyond what you know or else we’ll have nothing but the same type of books.
4. It hinders the writing process
Much of writing, particularly if you’re writing what you don’t know, can involve research. Take historical fiction, for example. Even if someone is familiar with a time period such as the American Revolutionary War, that person wasn’t there, he or she didn’t really know what it was like.
Extensive research is needed not just for historical fiction but many other types of fiction as well. This research can be an extremely helpful aspect to fiction writing that builds on ideas and concepts for a story. If you only “write what you know” you run the risk of arrogance hindering this research process. If you think you know it, why would you research?
5. It misrepresents the essence of fiction
When I wrote The Travelers, I called upon personal experience for one pivotal scene. When an editor read that scene, she wrote a note akin to “it’s not realistic.” However, I wrote it essentially how it happened, just with my characters rather than myself.
At the time, I thought the editor was nuts. What I didn’t realize was that the realism in fiction and actual reality are two different things. In the world of fiction, realism is part of a narrative, a story. It has an arc and you need to be true to that narrative. If you stuff some real life experience in there that doesn’t feel true to the characters and refuse to change it because that’s how it really happened, that’s just not smart writing.
In fiction, there is a sense of predictability, an essence of resolution. In reality and in non-fiction, you don’t typical get that. Perhaps that’s why many people who love fiction can feel let down or frustrated by non-fiction when it doesn’t fit the fictional narrative. But you can’t look at them through the same lens. These are two different ways of telling a story and fiction involves imagination with a dose of reality. It’s meant to illuminate truth, not necessarily show you exactly what is real.
So what advice should you take?
I read an article that once said, don’t write what you know, write what you like. I think that’s much better advice for fiction writers. I’d even say don’t just write what you like, write what you love – whether that’s fiction or not. If you’re passionate about something that passion will come out in your writing. That’s much better than just sticking with what you know.