Bad Writing Advice: Write What You Know

The most frequent advice given to aspiring writers is to “write what you know.” This is common advice, and like much common advice, it isn’t exactly on the level.

Those who tell aspiring writers this mean well, I’m sure. The statement is designed to save writers the embarrassment of venturing into those great blank spots on the map of their knowledge. If you’re a seventeen year old male, you probably shouldn’t be writing a story about a forty-year-old woman’s perspective on the topic of giving birth.

At the same time, there is a danger with this advice; namely, that it’s bad advice all the way around. The rule supposes a certain definition of the word “know.” What is it to know something? Writers and those who pass this phrase around like it were the sacred writings of Willy Wonka seem to intend by it that if you’re a housewife, you shouldn’t write about CIA agents in the amazon. After all, you don’t “know” that world, do you?

There are a couple of problems associated with this, though. For the first thing, it kills speculative fiction and fantasy in the bud, doesn’t it? After all, how many of us “know” elves? Taken to its most literal end, this rule means that you cannot write something you have not experienced in the physical world. This is only one way in which we can understand the term, “know,” however, and possibly the least sophisticated.

For instance, do those who believe in “write what you know” mean “head”, or intellectual, knowledge by this? Intellectual knowing is the least important aspect of knowing something. “Heart” knowledge is much more powerful for the human being than a mere head full of facts. If we understand “write what you know” to mean “heart” knowledge, it brings us perhaps a little closer to the truth of this rule. In other words, if you don’t have intimate, caring knowledge of your subject, you don’t know it. Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere! (See James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom for an extensive look at heart knowledge).

But is that all? Cognitive specialists have long recognized that the human mind is embodied. There is such a think as “body” knowledge. You know this thing so deeply the knowledge is in your bones. This is comprehensive knowledge of something, and often moves into a sort of knowledge you might not even be able to express in words. Yet this “embodied” knowledge is a vital part of how we “know” something. (See the huge book, Philosophy in the Flesh for more on this sort of thing). Anyone with great experience in a field knows this to be true; an auto mechanic can just sort of “intuit” that there is something wrong, and suspects it is this or that. When he turns out to be right, it is not because he is a witch. It’s because he has bone knowledge.

The long and the short of it is that “Write what you know” is an unhelpful phrase because it results in aspiring writers limiting themselves to things they think they “ought” to write about. But how can someone write about the faery realm, or the planet Zog, when they have never been there?

The answer lies, as it always has, in the realm of imagination. If you can imagine the place as real enough, if you “know” your story locations and your plot in your bones and in your gut, and you include enough physicality (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), you are truly writing “what you know.” What is more, you will provide the reader with a similar experience; your world will become so real to them they may, in their sleeping hours, wonder if you aren’t actually an interplanetary traveler. They will speculate, in moments of weakness, whether you have truly bridged the gap between our world and the land of faerie.

So write what you know. But remember that knowing extends beyond what you can see. What do you know? A touch of research never hurts, of course, but ultimately if you know your world inside and out, it won’t matter if it violates every law in ours. Your self-confidence in your creation will serve to give us confidence that you may know something we don’t.

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