I don’t think this advice is quite as useful as it seems and as people make it seem. But what should you do instead of following the tips to “write what you know?”
When I first started writing, I spent a whole day on Google looking up writing advice. I wanted to know how to write well and what to write in order to make sure people liked the stuff I actually wrote. I wanted my first book to be great and I didn’t want to have to go through a shit ton of mistakes in the process.
As you can imagine, I came across the phrase, “write what you know,” at least 7,000 times. Okay, so it wasn’t that often, but I did see it on every other writing advice blog I saw – and I saw a lot. And while I thought this advice was great at first, I quickly learned that maybe it isn’t the best advice to take so literally.
What it Means
This piece of advice isn’t meant for you to just take and write the things you know about. It’s meant in the sense that you should write about things you’re knowledgeable about. You should write from the things you’ve experienced.
Aka, if you know what heartache feels like, you should write that. If you know what it feels like to lose a loved one, write about that. That’s how this piece of advice is meant to be taken, but there’s one huge problem with that.
To be honest, if I wrote a book and used this advice literally, I wouldn’t have a very interesting book. It would be boring and it wouldn’t give you the feels. And we all know a good book is one that makes you feel powerful emotions while reading it.
This advice is far too limiting. It would require someone to live a tragic, happy, and loving life in order to produce a good book. But there are plenty of successful authors who haven’t lived through all of the things they write about. So how did they do it, then? How were they able to write a great book when they didn’t write what they knew?
Write From Empathy
This is truly the secret behind great writing – in my opinion. You can’t always write what you know because you may not know enough to produce a quality book. But you can write from empathy. You can imagine what it would feel like to be in certain situations even though you’ve never been there before. So you think hard about how you would feel and then write those emotions.
Many successful authors are extremely empathetic people. They understand how someone is feeling so powerfully that they’re able to use that same quality and put themselves in the shoes of their fictional characters just like they do in real life.
You Can Always Research Information
If you really don’t know how it would feel to be in situations that you put your characters into, you can always research it. You can interview people. You can do a lot of different things to put yourself in their shoes and truly learn how it would feel to be in a number of different situations.
You don’t have to know exactly what heartbreak feels like in order to write a convincing heartbreak scene. But you do have to put in the time and effort to make sure the emotions you’re writing are realistic.
So is Writing What You Know Pointless Advice?
I would have to say yes and no. Yes, it’s useful because it tells people to write about things they’re familiar with – which is always more genuine and real when someone reads it. However, it’s pointless in the sense that you can’t just write what you know. If you did, your books and stories wouldn’t be half as interesting as you want them to be.