Write what you (don’t) know

I have heard the phrase, ‘write what you know,’ many times before. It’s mentioned and thrown around as if it is simply a fact of writing. A rule or regulation that all writers would do well to abide by. I used to hear it and think it was true. After all, if you don’t know what you’re writing about, how can you possibly write about it? More than that, I believed it to be true because I’ve realized you can’t write much without either intentionally, or unintentionally, including parts of yourself into your writing. Whether it be the plot, characters, or even dialogue, when I re-read my writing; I always seem to find parts of myself embedded in my sentences and paragraphs. I never do it on purpose, but I always seem to recognize myself or my experiences in my stories.

Once I had written a story with three completely different main characters. When reading over my writing, all three of the characters seemed startlingly familiar. With more thought, I realized- it was because they all had something that was a part of my life. That was insane to me, mostly because I had done it and not been aware that I had put parts of my personality into three characters that were nothing like each other. After I came to this realization, I put a lot more thought into the phrase, ‘write what you know.’ I was convinced it had to be true; that all authors must write what they know, because it’s their first instinct. I thought that people must say it for the same reason I believed it, that ‘what you know,’ always shows up in their writing regardless. Because of that, I believed, you should ‘write what you know’ so it sounds genuine and real. If you write what you don’t know, you won’t be able to write as effectively.

It makes sense, in theory, why ‘write what you know’ is included in books about tips for writers and taken to heart. I again, however, began to think even more about the phrase and how true it could be when I started writing a much different story that was way out of my comfort zone; with much I didn’t know. I began to wonder if I was way in over my head. I pondered if I should just trash the story and stick to what I knew. After all, I didn’t want to sound ridiculous writing about something I had no knowledge about. After I begrudgingly continued the story; I came to a wondrous conclusion. I was writing about something I didn’t know, and it was extremely fun! I had to look some things up, and it was a challenge at points, but that made it all the more fun. One of the personality traits that’s hardest for me to assign to a character is one that simply doesn’t care. I care a lot, so writing about a character that didn’t was foreign to me. I thought I wasn’t capable of writing it because I ‘didn’t know it,’ but after I tried it, I realized I enjoyed the challenge and the contrast it had with my normal characters.

If you write only what you know, think about how limited you’ll always be. You’ll be confined to your short life and experiences. You might not be able to write about farm life, city life, or small town life. Maybe you’ll never, then, write a story about a broken family or a whole family, or one that’s only slightly bent. All your characters will seem exactly the same, and all the situations your characters are in will be dull to your eyes. Reading, for me, is like going on adventures I’ve never been on and places I’ve never been. Writing is the same. Writing allows me to gain different perspectives and see things from outside of my own mind and instead putting myself into the shoes of another. It gives me a bird’s eye view on situations, points of views, and thoughts. If I stuck only to what I knew, I might as well write a memoir for all the difference it makes. That is why you need to write what you don’t know. Writing what you don’t know it what makes writing fun. When thinking about ‘writing what you don’t know,’ I came across an article that summarizes it very well. The article is called, ‘Bad Advice Boogie’ by Jeff Somers in a Writer’s Digest Magazine;

“Write what you know was never intended to be a comprehensive rejection of the imagination; believe it or not, you can write about stuff you know nothing about as long as you can pull it off and make people believe it. After all, if you ‘write what you know’ to its logical conclusion, your left with memoir. My take on WWYK is this: Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know. WWYK hurts first drafts more than anything, because it discourages you from just plowing ahead with your story in delirious joy. First drafts are for creating, rushing ahead and telling a story. If your current work-in-progress is stalled, it might be time to stop worrying whether you know stuff or not and just write a story you’d want to read.”

I think Jeff Somers puts it perfectly; and it’s so true. Keep in mind, writing what you don’t know doesn’t mean to not write about anything that you know the slightest thing about. Writing what you don’t know is basically just pushing you to expand your horizons and write varied stories. Little bits and pieces of yourself are still going to sneak into your story, and that’s okay! That’s encouraged, actually. Expand your horizons, and include yourself along the way. As with all things, it’s about balance. So, throw your knowledge out the window and simply write what you don’t know!

When our inner vision opens, our horizons expand.

Louise Hay

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