Bad Advice Boogie: Write What You Know

One piece of writing advice that seems good but can do a lot of harm is the old classic, "write what you know." Jeff Somers explains why.
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One piece of writing advice that seems good but can do a lot of harm is the old classic, "write what you know." Jeff Somers explains why.

Writing is like a magic trick in that it loses all its allure when you start peeking behind the curtain. The more you start asking questions about where we get our ideas or how we pull off those plot twists, the more certain you become that none of us really understand what we’re doing [1]. For all our nattering on about craft and process, the ratio of magic to science in the business of writing fiction is probably a billion to one.

But the human mind demands answers, and so we’ve all come up with various rules or guidelines that seek to explain how, exactly, you write a compelling piece of fiction. And growing up like so many weeds underneath that labored infrastructure of how-tos and DIY manuals is a lot of advice. A lot of advice. Most of which is fine, and all of which is meant well—but some of it isn’t so great, whether because it’s fundamentally flawed or because it’s generally misunderstood or misapplied [2].

One piece of advice that seems good but can do a lot of harm is the old classic write what you know.

You Know Nothing

Look, write what you know isn’t bad advice, per se. It’s pithy, which makes it hard to resist. Those four little words seem to encompass a universe of wisdom, but the problem is that some writers misunderstand it and take it far too literally, assuming that you shouldn’t write anything that you don’t have direct experience with, which restricts you, essentially, to a form of memoir. Which is going to make for a good story if you’re the Ernest Hemingway sort who wanders about getting involved in wars and fistfights in seedy Parisian bars, but won’t work quite so well if you’re a paunchy middle-aged white guy living with five cats in New Jersey [3]. Anything you don’t actually have direct experience of you have to acquire that experience, or at least do a ton of research before you start writing, right [4]?

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Well, no, not really. The main damage that write what you know does to your writing occurs when it’s applied to a first draft. First drafts are where your imagination should be firing on all cylinders, where you should follow your muse wherever it leads[5]. If you let write what you know get into your head and you start worrying that you can’t pull off your story because you were never a secret agent, or a wizard, or a different gender, you will quite frankly never actually finish a manuscript.

Whether or not the world is better off without that particular manuscript is an issue for a different article. The point is, the messy rough draft of your novel shouldn’t be where you worry about writing what you know. Did Leo Tolstoy know what it was like to be Anna Karenina? I doubt it. But he could imagine it, and—and this is the key thing—he could always go back over his first draft and fix it up if he didn’t quite nail the details [6].

Fake It Till You Make It

Instead of write what you know, I suggest another bit of pithy and equally useless advice: fake it till you make it [7]. Don’t know something that’s integral to your story? Fake it. Make it up. Draw on your immense stores of television and film knowledge, all those years spent reading comic books and playing with your friends in the back yard and make up all the details so you can get that first draft written.

Because here’s the thing: If your first draft has potential, if it’s a great story that moves and intrigues and affects the folks who read it, you’ll have an opportunity later to get those details right. If your first draft is crap, no amount of accuracy or personal knowledge of that which you write will save it [8]. It’s that simple. Don’t write what you know, write what you want to read [9].

Everything else you can fix in post.

[1] Shocking revelation: None of us do.

[2] Or because at the moment when the advice was dispensed I’d been drinking since noon and had clearly lost the ability to remember anything, so I carefully wrote the advice on a piece of damp cocktail napkin and in the harsh light of the next day the note appeared to read NEVER GET HAIR CUT BY FEATHER DUSTER.

[3] I just described myself and became incredibly depressed.

[4] Which is a problem because I long ago decided I would never do anything that would result in intense regret in the final moments before my death, like jumping out of an airplane, or attempting to eat fifty eggs.

[5] Even if, like me, the ultimate destination in following your muse is a 12-step program.

[6] Little known fact: In the first draft it was Frank Karenina.

[7] Also the title of my autobiography.

[8] I know this to be true from INCREDIBLY PAINFUL experience.

[9] Unless what you want to read is nothing but Shipper fanfiction. In that case, please write what someone else wants to read.

Have an amazing story idea, but need to learn the basics of how to write a book? WD University's Fundamentals of Fiction will take you through all of the basics of writing a novel including how important it is to choose a great setting, how to build characters, what point of view you should choose, how to write great dialogue, and more. Register today!

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