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Is "Write What You Know" Good Writing Advice?

Posted on: 2022/04/11 | Author: Lian

"Write what you know" is probably one of the most misunderstood and at the same time most commonly quoted staples of writing advice.

Some interpret it as a strict ban on writing about experiences and circumstances that you have not experienced yourself, and urge you to stick exclusively to what you have personally experienced instead. After all, someone who is not a British Muslim will surely not know the intricacies you need to write a thriller with just such a protagonist; and they might be much more suited to write an exciting novel about the threads of life they have personally lived through. Others will claim that this piece of advice is much more hinting towards the fact that you might have an easier time writing a coherent and exciting story if the reader is made aware through the quality of your writing that you are knowledgeable about the topic. It would surely be a delight to read a comedy about linguistics written by an actual linguist.

Of course, I do not assume or proclaim to have the One True Interpretation of the idiom; but then again, save for its original source, if it even is a singular person, who can? In this short post, I want to give my perspective on how to healthily and constructively interpret the advice "write what you know", without either restricting yourself in the art you can produce nor being utterly disrespectful to the groups and circumstances you portray.

Writing About Things Which Ain't You: The Cultural Implications

Generally, writing inherently is documentation about an "other": a fictious character, a fictious plot, maybe even a fictious world. Unless you are writing an autobiography, you will never get to a workable end product that exclusively consists of material you have personally experienced. Of course, this is not what many people mean when they implore you to stick to your own experiences. Oftentimes, this is advice given to avoid situations like the publishing of those unfortunate works of "art" where some outsider attempts to write about a culture or an identity they are not intimately familiar with and thus inadvertently, and sometimes unwittingly, grossly misrepresent what these are actually like.

Obviously, writing is not about documenting what the world really is like - after all, you are writing about fictious events - but your writing gives away your real life assumptions about how the world works. If your coming-of-age novel set in the real world has the characters casually mention the Great Ice Wall at the edge of Earth, you are more than likely to communicate that you believe in a Flat Earth. In the same way, writing about something you do not know anything about may give away your ignorance to readers who do know what they are talking about, which can be a jarring experience. Of course, this can - and should - not always be avoided. Surely, pedantic astrophysicists will have no good time with Star Trek, and yet Star Trek is not a bad franchise overall for its inability to correctly simulate what warp speed would look like in real life. But if it is not about the intricacies of starship propulsion but instead about real people with real identities, these assumptions you make through your writing might identify you as someone totally ignorant of what these people are like, or worse, someone looking to make a quick buck at their expense.

This section is just to say: there are reasons why people might dislike your writing or you as a person if you write about something you do NOT know, especially if that something is relating to someone's experiences close to their very identity. Otherwise you might come across as just another someone making a Christian movie about a mass-murdering Gamer who was converted to the Dark Side by his evil video game Call Of Battle: or in short, someone who produces media portraying people and circumstances they do not know anything about.

Write What You Know, Research What You Don't: The Advice

Essentially, the titular advice is something I interpret as having two distinct messages:

The second meaning extrapolated from the piece of advice is more relevant for new and aspiring authors who might still struggle extensively with building an engaging plot and a story that people care for. It will be easier for a high school student in a creative writing class to write a coming-of-age story about someone about their age in a magical high school, as they have intimately experienced what it is like to be a high school student of their age, than it will be writing a Wild West novel which prides itself on historical accuracy. This part of the advice is meant to encourage people new to the craft to find motivation in their real life, which is a good starter in any case. After all, writing advice is usually aimed at people who are just starting out, not for seasoned authors.

The other part however relates to the big cluster we already discussed at-length in the previous section. I am of the opinion that anyone is allowed to write about anything. That does not mean that you must put up with every single offensively bad (or badly offensive) piece of garbage published via Amazon self-publishing, but it means that no theme is inherently off-limits for any one person. As I said earlier, writing can reveal something about your world view by what you gloss over as natural and how you choose to portray some concepts, but portraying people who are unique or troubled, or even portraying bigotry or offensiveness, does not make you associated with that. After all, we are writing about fictious events, and nobody can seriously claim in this day and age that media portraying violence makes you violent, or consuming Harry Potter makes you an occultist. It is alright to portray a racist character, it is okay to portray a troubled Black teenager (given you portray them well), but it is not okay to "coincidentally" make every Black person in your novel someone speaking an odd, distorted view of what you think AAVE sounds like. In the first two examples, you portray racism, in the last example you let your racism shine through by the assumptions your writing makes. I have come across the proverb "As a man, I can write about women; but I can not write about how it is to be a woman" recently, and it beautifully illustrates my point here.

People will make a point against this advice by saying that no fantasy author can truly know what it means to fight a dragon, or to handle magic, and yet we can still write those; but clearly, these still require some amount of research to be taken seriously; try going to a fantasy convention with a short story where people consume copious amounts of salt and casually fight with swords in a war set in medieval Europe. Yes, writing is not about being a hundred percent accurate to what real life is like, but striking a balance between realistic mundanity and serious believability is one of the prime tasks of a writer.

The golden rule is really: Write what you know, research what you don't, to make your stories believable. Nobody should seriously implore you to exclusively stick to experiences you have personally made: otherwise, genre fiction goes out the window almost entirely, and anything beyond the mundane follows its path. Instead, what you should aim for is to make sure that you know things you want to write about. Don't stop yourself from writing about the journey of a Polish woman through World War Two if you are a male overweight writer from Australia; but make sure you do a lot of research on the topic, perhaps speak to survivors, historians, read books and articles about the topic. No topic is off-limits for any one person, but topics, especially sensitive ones concerning identity and history, should be properly researched before being written about by someone who was not personally involved.

Do not limit your ambitions to what you have personally experienced. Make sure you are in for the long run, prepare yourself for an extensive journey of hunting through interviews, articles, books, papers and personally speaking to experts, and realize that you are the one learning. But then, write your magnum opus, even if it is about someone or something you have previously been ignorant about.

Write what you know, and if you don't know something, make sure you get to know it.

"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth"
- Jean-Luc Picard