Home > Techniques and tips > Write what you know – A Dangerous Idea

Write what you know – A Dangerous Idea

April 23rd, 2013 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
  • Tweet
  • Tweet

In our continued effort to improve our writing, we can be very sensitive to the advice of others. Here’s a reason not to follow so-called “common knowledge” advice about what is a very personal craft.

What it means on the surface and why that’s bullcrap

“Write what you know” has always sounded controversial to me. It’s one of those phrases that manages to make complete sense, but at the same time make one baulk at its absurdity.

Of course, writing about what you know about lends it a realism that might otherwise be difficult to fake. And many writers have made a successful career out of it. John Grisham is a popular example – an ex-lawyer who writes thrillers about law firms and lawyers to the exclusion of all else.

But on the other hand… what? How can one write only about what one knows? If that’s true, then entire genres are suddenly laid to waste, or assumed to be pointless drivel. Say good bye to Lord of the Rings or Dune and countless other favourite sci-fi and fantasy stories.

And of course, all fiction writing involves something that has been made up (I’m sure Mr. Grisham’s former vocation wasn’t half as exciting as his novels), that is why it’s fiction. No fiction writer writes only what they know.

A Dangerous Idea

So, we’ve established that we are not, in fact, drowning in a sea of autobiographies (though looking at the shelves of WHSmith’s makes me think I’m wading at least waist-high).

But before I unpick the real meaning of the phrase I want to express how damaging this surface-interpretation might be to a fledgling writer.

First, it’s one of those rules that pretends with all its might to be hard-and-fast. This is the way to write, it says, and no one will accept any substitute.

thought bubble

Thought-provoking image courtesy of Chicago Art Department on Flickr

That is off-putting enough in itself, but worse than that is that the limits appear well-defined. You can write about your own life – your job, your family and friends (or very close approximations thereof), your home-town, but cast your net no wider. Now, I’m sure some very interesting stories might well be told about such things, but it’s limiting, and in such a dull way.

Moreover, at the very least it limits events, places, objects, people to things that can exist. But the very things that are most likely to excite a young mind are those things we know can’t exist. When I was growing up (I haven’t finished yet to be honest, and I hope never to), it was the dragons and the aliens, the sorcerers and the saucers that got me reading. I wanted to read about the impossible – that was the point!

I read around when I was researching this topic, and after some thought I have come to my own conclusions about this particular piece of advice. I’ll share them in my next post. While researching I came across this wonderful post by Amy E. Yergen. I encourage you to go read it afterwards.

One of the striking things about it is that this very piece of advice stopped her from writing when she was young.

I think part of the reason this advice can have that effect is that, perhaps more than other writing maxims, it’s delivered with little discussion. The phrase appears self-explanatory so it’s left hanging in the air, as stony and real as a mallet ready to whack your dreams.

Needless to say, it’s not a piece of advice that Amy spreads around:

I don’t say that I write what I know, but I do say that I write what I feel, I write what I think is beautiful, and I write what I enjoy.

Amy E. Yergen

So I should… write what I don’t know?

Umm… er… ooh… well, things are never that straight forward are they. Yes and no, I reckon is the answer.

But I’ll be talking about that some more next week as I delve deep into the phrase to discover the grains of truth in this sandcastle of lies!

Over to you:
So, this literal interpretation of “write what you know” – dangerous? Or the best advice ever (or something in-between)? You know what I think, but I want to hear from you fine folk – get your comments out and whack them on the space below.