Why Writing What you Know is Bad Advice
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
The truth beyond the tired old cliche.
My writing muse / familiar
Of all advice given to newbie writers, "write what you know" is the absolute worst.
As a young writer, learning my craft, writing about my home in the Denver suburbs didn't thrill me. I wanted to write what I didn't know, whether it was the exciting hustle-and-bustle of New York City, or the red rock desert and expansive vistas of the Australian Outback.
My Biggest Eureka Moment
It took me a while to realize "writing what you know" doesn't mean that I could only write about the bland Denver suburbs with which I was intimately familiar. It was just a lazy way of saying "write what you are intimately familiar with, because your knowledge and your passion will show in your writing." That realization opened up a whole new world for me. Finally, I could write about anything I dang well wanted—as long I researched it thoroughly enough to write convincingly about it.
Making it Work for Me
In the case of New York City, I have never been there. At least not in person, although of course I'm as familiar with it as is anyone who regularly consumes American culture. I know the sights and the sounds. Anything I don't have direct experience of, I could extrapolate. When I needed more information, I went to Google, and Wikipedia, and my library, and writer forums, and travel literature and ... well you get the idea.
My eventual "hey I did it" moment came when a beta reader who'd spent a significant amount of time in NYC said I'd written the city details so believably she thought I must have at least spent a summer there. Of course, some of the credit must go to the internet and our benevolent Google overlords. Before the days of the literal world-at-your-typing-fingertips, research was a whole lot harder, more time-consuming, and less visual. With the click of a few buttons, I can be virtually exploring Central Park, see what the Guggenheim has on display, or find some quirky gallery in SoHo where the heroine is trying to get her artistic foot in the door. Of course, with so much information at our disposal, a writer these days has no excuse for not getting the details right.
"Write what you know" is bad advice for newbie writers. Too often, it limits them into believing they can write ONLY from personal knowledge and experience. Instead the adage should say something like, "Write what you want, and research it until you know it like you've lived it."