That rather ambiguous adage, write what you know, is as timeless as it is tiresome. I remember first receiving instruction to this effect from my elementary school English teacher 20-odd years ago. It was advice that had been passed down from one generation to the next, like an heirloom, and over time it had snowballed into the advice to give to a budding writer.
It was scary to hear that advice then, just as it would be to hear it now. I’ve lived nearly 30 years, but I still don’t feel as if I truly know enough to satisfy any audience with the modest dealings of my experience base. Suffice to say, what has become a popular school of thought in writing is far more complex than it appears at first blush. Write what you know can be interpreted in many ways, and it has been, by authors, professors, literary experts, and writer trainees like me, who are just trying to create something that resonates. What I’ve learned through my journalism degree, countless jobs and internships, and half a decade of freelancing is that it’s counterproductive to take write what you know at face value.
According to Dan Brown, the American author best known for The Da Vinci Code, what you know is simply a stepping stone. In a [CBS segment], he says, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about. Make the writing process a learning process for you.”
Here’s how to heed to the advice of Brown and better cultivate what you know.
Get in touch with other writing
When J.K. Rowling invented the fantastical world of Harry Potter, was she writing what she knew? What about J. R. R. Tolkien? What about C. S. Lewis? Were these authors writing what they knew? The worlds they contrived within the pages of their manuscripts were mythical, sure, but they were also loosely influenced by fictional worlds that already existed in literature.
When it comes to writing what we know, sometimes it just a matter of tapping into what we’re not even consciously aware we know, and—as any writer will tell you—the best way to increase this invisible knowledge base is by reading. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, we are constantly influenced by what we read. And oftentimes, the kind of content we are drawn to is aspirational (and if it’s not, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you’re reading).
I think Stephen King said it best when he said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Get in touch with your emotions
Even the most fantastical worlds are relatable because they are full of truths. Nathan Englander, the critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, says write what you know is simply “empathic advice.” In an article for Big Think, he says, “Why do we love those books [we love], why do they change us, why do they touch our hearts, why do they hold so much meaning? Because they are truer than truth; because there is a great knowing within them, and I think what’s behind “write what you know” is emotion.”
While J.K. Rowling may not have known what it was like to cast a spell, brew Polyjuice Potion, or fly on a broom, she more than likely knew what it was like to experience a first day at a new school, have best friends, and fall in love. The emotions we feel are oftentimes universal, and the ability to capture them is what brings writing to life. In this way, we can write what we know, even when the content matter transcends us.
Jeff Elkins, a Baltimore-based writer, speaks to the importance of emotion in an article titled “How to Write What You Know.” He writes, “After I’ve had an experience I know will translate into my fiction, I spend five minutes with my journal writing it down. My writing isn’t polished or meant to be seen by anyone else. It’s just notes to remind myself of the feeling.”
Get in touch with other people
As reclusive as the act of writing can be, it also has an uncanny way of bringing people together. Beyond the harmonizing effects of a story told well, most forms of writing tend to benefit from the use of human sources. Zoe Heller, an English journalist and the author of Notes on Scandal, recommends writers venture outwards, once they’ve exhausted introspection. For the New York Times’ Bookends column, Heller writes:
“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl [after being told to write what I knew] was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.“
Human sources can be an asset throughout the writing process, and thanks to the internet, these sources are often a mere URL away. According to an article on the NY Book Editors website, "Joining a writing community is one of the best things you can do to improve your morale and hone your skills.” The article then goes on to outline why, citing invaluable critiques and support, beta readership, and an extra avenue for promotion as compelling reasons to join.
While there is no shortage of writing communities, not all are created equal. If you’re willing to pay a nominal monthly fee, accoladed creatives swear by networks such as WritersCafe, Freelance Writers Den, and Inked Voices. If not, sites like Absolute Write, Scribophile, Critique Circle, and Get Underlined offer similar services for free. And if your writing is genre-specific, you might want to check out Critters Writers Workshop (for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror), or shop around for a writers’ group that’s better suited to your content preferences.
Reddit is an online resource that’s truly one-size-fits-all. In addition to being an rabbit hole of information, Reddit features a host of subreddits dedicated to writing, including r/Write, r/Writing, r/WritingPrompts, r/Blogging, and r/WritingHub. It may also be the place to go if you’ve got writer’s block.
Get in touch with knowledge
This one is easier said than done, as most advantageous things are. That said, the fluidity with which knowledge can be consumed these days leaves little excuse to not be consuming regularly. Social media has made engaging with important news and information synonymous with perusing posts from your friends and favorite celebrities, and for many, this is a manageable and organic way to get your daily fix of current events. But I caution that this is hardly enough, particularly if your bread and butter happens to be idea-based. If you’re an internet junkie, you can also subscribe to knowledge-rich Reddit threads, including r/TodayILearned, r/IWantToLearn, and r/lectures. If you’re not sure what follow, pay attention to the Subreddit of the Day.
Podcasts and audiobooks pose an attractive alternative to reading—particularly if you’re looking for an economical way to consume books. One option is Amazon subsidiary Audible, which is a great resource if you’re in the market for some riveting fiction, including new releases and New York Times Best Sellers. While Audible offers a free trial, users have to pay for a subscription after 30 days. The OverDrive App, available through public libraries, provides a cost-effective alternative to such subscription services. For a service that’s a little more expedited, Blinkist aims to highlight just the chief ideas from the world’s best nonfiction books, via a 15-minute text and audio. And for a service that’s a little less expedited, journalism podcasts, such as the Longform Podcast, make consuming longform writing a less daunting.
Though it’s tough to be sure where write what you know originated from, Ernest Hemingway wove the platitude into a preface for a 1959 compilation of his short stories. In the preface, The Art of the Short Story, he writes, “You throw it all away and invent from what you know. I should have said that sooner. That’s all there is to writing.”
And while there certainly is truth to Hemingway’s candor, it’s important to bear in mind that, since his time, we have become boundless creatures. We travel more, we interact at the click or tap of a button, and by means of the internet, we can now experience nearly everything life has to offer, and then some. Even if the bulk of our knowledge happens to be secondhand, we can heighten our understanding by watching a video, viewing photographs, or reading a first-person account.
I think it’s safe to say that, since Hemingway’s time, we’ve graduated to more contemporary cliches, but I can’t imagine we will be retiring write what you know any time soon. Semantics aside, even if the adage merely ignites the first few sparks of an idea, oftentimes, those sparks are a gateway to a story only you have the ability to tell.
Zakiya Kassam is a freelance writer and technical editor. She currently reports on decor and design for Canadian Home Trends Magazine and has recently been afforded the opportunity to develop concepts and scripts for The Marc and Mandy Show. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail and Ryerson Review of Journalism. You can find her on Twitter: @zakkassam