If you’ve breathed air in this world for longer than five minutes, you’ve heard this phrase.
Write what you know.
This invariably leads every writer to have the same existential crisis when we realize that we don’t know a damned thing. And even if we do know something, it’s boring as hell and no one wants to read it.
This realization leads many writers to treat this advice as just so much bullshit. Which is a shame, because it’s some of the best writing advice you’ll ever hear.
As I see it, there are three reasons why people get this so wrong. So today let’s talk about those reasons. And let’s talk about how you can use ‘Write what you know to help you write better.
Everyone misinterprets this phrase
The phrase is write what you know. It is not now, nor has it ever been write only what you know. If that were the case, speculative fiction wouldn’t exist at all.
Maybe it would help to rephrase this. Write a piece of yourself into your work. This is more honest, but not as catchy.
As an example, I know a lot about coffee and having a complicated relationship with my hometown. I love animals and handcrafts and Fall. I am endlessly fascinated with the Mandella effect, and all things supernatural. All of that comes up in my writing.
Everyone underestimates what they know
If you ask anyone what they know about really well, they’re probably going to tell you that there’s one, maybe two things they know about. Most people would swear they don’t know about anything but their favorite tv show.
The same thing happened to me a few weeks ago! An icebreaker question during a writing event just floored me. “What could you talk about for an hour with no prior warning?”
My first thought was, hell I don’t know. Futurama?
Then someone mentioned Pittsburgh, and it hit me. I could talk about George Romero and his impact on Steel City for an hour. Hell, they’d probably have to shut me up after an hour.
As I waited my turn, I thought of more and more things I could talk for an hour on. The importance of homemaking in modern times. Why it should be illegal for landlords to refuse their tenets to allow pets. Why we should abolish lawns.
There are lots of other things that maybe couldn’t take up an hour, but I still know about them.
Here’s an exercise for you. Start making a list of things you know, big or small. Do you still think you don’t know anything? Let me help you get started.
You know your home town.
You know what it was like to go to your high school.
You know what it was like to grow up in your family home, with your family.
Everyone underestimates how interested other people would be in what they know
I don’t think anyone wants to hear about my childhood, but I gobble up autobiographies. I don’t think anyone cares about my hometown, but then I can’t get enough of small towns in horror novels. I don’t think anyone wants to hear about my family, but I love hearing about everyone else’s family.
Remember your life seems boring to you because you lived it. No one else has done that. No one has the same experiences you have. No one has walked the same path. And your path is fascinating.
That is really what we mean by writing what you know. Not that you have to have lived a fantasy life to write. But your life is fantastic, and you should share that in your work.
Preptober starts tomorrow. Don’t forget to grab your Preptober planner on my Ko-fi store