I don’t know who was the first person to say “write what you know,” but if I ever meet them, I’d like to bop them on the nose.
I mean, I’d never actually do it, but…
Seriously, I want to.
Because I imagine the four-word-sentence-of-doom has confused hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring, intermediate, and advanced writers. It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice floating out there, and it’s also the most misunderstood.
So in today’s Writing Wednesday post, I’m going to do my best to dispel some of the myths regarding this advice.
Myth 1: You have to know everything/be a genius/be an expert before you start writing.
“Write what you know” means exactly what it says — that one should write about what they know. If somebody knows a lot about rutabegas, they should write about rutabegas. If somebody knows a lot about copyright law, they should write about copyright law. Know a lot about potato farmers? You get the picture.
But what if you know nothing about potatoes and potato farmers?
Welp… guess that means you’re barred from writing about potatoes and potato farmers forever, right?
Truth 1: You DO NOT need to know everything before you start writing.
As someone who writes primarily in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you can bet that I’ve written plenty of stories where I know nothing about what I’m writing. I’ve never built a robot who wanted to destroy the world. I’ve never had my soul stolen by a demon and his cat friend. I’ve never been a boy who joined a book club full of guys who like playing around with their femininity.
So how is it that I have the audacity to keep creating things I know little-to-nothing about?
Well, this brings me to pseudo-myth #2. And I call it a pseudo-myth, because part of is true.
Myth 2: Writing what you know about makes your stories stronger.
Writing from a place of expertise and extensive knowledge is a good place to be, sometimes. If you know a lot about potatoes and potato farming and then happen to write a story about a potato farmer, chances are your writing will be very detailed and vivid and clear. And as Destine Williams explains on her blog, clarity is god. The last thing you want to show a potential reader is your ignorance about a certain topic.
I admit that in my creative writing classes — high school and college, I often envied certain classmates’ writing because they knew more about a particular topic than I did, even though they weren’t pursuing a degree in English. One student, who wanted to be an illustrator, had lush setting descriptions indicative of someone who had strong visual skills. Another student, majoring in biological sciences, created fascinating poetry about the microscopic as well as macroscopic worlds.
But here’s the thing: Knowing a lot about a topic is one thing.
Putting it to paper and creating art with it is another.
Truth 2: Writing what you know about makes your stories stronger SOME OF THE TIME, BUT NOT ALL OF THE TIME.
My fellow classmates weren’t just great writers because they knew a lot about one single topic or had more skill in one area than other.
They were great writers because they were great writers. Period.
They knew how to display their knowledge without showing off. They knew when to use a semicolon or when to use enjambment because they studied their craft. They knew what their fiction and poetry required and knew it well.
To quote Philoscifi, “knowledge is a tool, and wisdom is the craft in which the tool is used.” Knowledge is helpful; it lets you paint more accurate pictures in your stories.
But what you need to grow as an artist is not only wisdom, but also the ability to acknowledge your weak areas without reservation or shame so that you can improve them.
Myth 3: Writing what you know about makes you a better writer in the long term.
Doing any kind of research for your writing projects, whether before, during, or after, is up to you. Unless you’re writing some surreal or humorous piece that describes a cow in incorrect detail, you should know what a cow looks, sounds, feels, and behaves like.
If you don’t, that’s okay. Ask a dairy farmer. I’m sure one would be happy to tell you.
If you can’t get in touch with a dairy farmer, ask forums. Read more books. Gather more knowledge.
If you want to write romance novels, fine. But if you don’t write that romance novel because you don’t know anything about dairy farming or potato farming — because you’re afraid of being found out as non-expert — then I say to you the following:
Make friends with what you don’t know or don’t understand, and then write the darn thing.
Truth 3: Branching out is better than bunching in.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way in your life, but for a good portion of mine, I’ve felt like I had to be the smart one. I’d get As on my assignments and report cards and feel really good about myself. I’d get complimented on how articulate I spoke a certain point in class.
Of course, there were other students in the class who knew more than I did or who got high test scores, and I was cool with that. I wasn’t obsessed with being the absolute smartest kid in every class and getting a 4.0 or whatnot.
But looking back on it now, I can see where my perfectionist tendencies might have come from: from wanting to appear smart. Because being smart meant good things. It meant respect. It meant prestige. It mean being the kid other students went to for help on their assignments. It meant being seen by your college counselor as the kid who had the potential to go to Harvard, even though said kid (read: me) didn’t have the money nor the interest in applying to any schools out of state.
Even though I didn’t consider myself outgoing or one of the popular kids, and even though I was completely fine with having Bs and mostly kept to my video games and books and TV shows, I likely equated my intelligence with my self-worth without realizing it.
So you can imagine what happened when I got my first C ever in Geometry during Fall Semester 2010.
Up until that point, I never struggled in any of my math classes. I love algebra. I loved dividing fractions and figuring out what x was. But for some reason, I could not, for the life of me, wrap my head around Geometry. And because it was the only class I couldn’t wrap my head around, I took my frustrations out on my teacher in secret as a coping mechanism. While it might have indeed been the case that the teacher I had was just a terrible teacher (other students were struggling besides me), I took out my frustration on said teacher in order to cope with my feelings of inadequacy, shame, confusion, and guilt. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking those years ago, but it was probably something along these lines:
Things aren’t supposed to be this way. This is supposed to come easy to me. Math wasn’t hard before. Why is it hard now? I feel so stupid. I feel so dumb. I’m never going to understand this. I’ll never get past this. I’ll have to repeat this class.
Yet with sheer determination and sprinklings of extra credit, I clawed my way back up to a B by the end of Spring Semester. Everything, in the end, turned out well.
But to this day, I still remember all of the tests I got Cs and Ds on. I still remember how awful I felt, thinking that I wasn’t the smart kid anymore.
And you know what?
I have felt that way again and again and again since then.
Struggling through AP Calculus junior year, clawing my way through Advanced Japanese my second year of college, trying to parallel park — Time and time again, I have gotten frustrated by not knowing everything, not getting everything right the first time, not appearing smart and perfect.
Maybe it’s because I was raised in the United States, where being an expert/genius/wunderkid is praised high from the mountain tops, that I am particularly hard on myself, and maybe my anxiety, to some extent, exacerbates these tendencies.
But in any case, I’m telling you this brief anecdote, dear readers, because I wanted you to know that not knowing something right away or doing something right the first time is okay.
Writing what you know is a good thing. You should write about your fears and struggles and that time you had a pet snail (if you totally did, let me know! I’d love to read it). You should write about the way the wind embraced you in its silky, chilly breeze. You should write about the way tea and cream rush down your throat and your body, warming your insides. You should write about that time you won a sport or lost a friend and anything else you remember because those feelings and emotions are true to you and your experience, and they will ring true in the reader as well, even if they haven’t experienced those things before.
But it’s also okay for you to guess and to get things wrong. It’s okay for you to learn how to decide between crimson or rouge in a poem. It’s okay for you to write out your rough draft of a story that takes place in Japan and then go and watch a bunch of YouTube videos later to get more visually accurate in your work.
Writing what you know is fine, but it should not be the end-all. It should help you write, not help you rot. It should fuel your fire, not snuff it out.
And if you hadn’t caught my drift already, not even the so-called experts know what they’re doing, sometimes.
One Last Thought…
Believe it or not, chocolate chip cookies, arguably the one of the most popular cookies ever, were an accident.
Ruth Graves Wakefield invented the Toll House brand of chocolate chip cookies.
She graduated from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924. She worked as a dietitian and lectured on food until 1930 when she and her husband bought a tourist lodge in Whitman, Massachusetts. The tourist lodge was named the Toll House Inn.
Ruth cooked and served all the food for the meals served to the guests at the Inn and gained local notoriety for her deserts. One day while making cookies, she realized she was out of an ingredient for the recipe she was using. She had run out of baker’s chocolate, so she substituted it with a semisweet chocolate bar from Nestle. However, unlike the baker’s chocolate, the chopped up chocolate bar did not melt and mix into the batter like Ruth thought it would. The small pieces of chocolate only softened and the chocolate chip cookie was born.
Ruth Wakefield was, by all means, an expert. She knew food. She gave lectures on it. She worked as a dietitian.
But even she didn’t know everything. Even she didn’t know what would actually happen when she substituted that baker’s chocolate for a chocolate bar from Nestle.
But you know what was the most important thing she did?
She didn’t give up.
Instead of finding out that she ran out of baker’s chocolate, she took a guess — an educated one, but still a guess — and created one of the most popular cookies of all time. Instead of running off to get baker’s chocolate, cooking “what she knew,” and staying in her comfort zone, she broke new ground.
And you can, too.
Hey, there! Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you found it entertaining, educational, informative, and/or inspiring. If so, please consider buying me a cup of coffee or giving whatever you can so I can write more posts like this in the future.
Anyway, that’s it from me. See you next post!