Ever since Mark Twain once said “write what you know,” the adage has been passed along to new and aspiring writers. It makes sense on paper—why wouldn’t you write about that which you are most acquainted with? And, even more importantly, doesn’t that make it easier? But everyone’s experience is different. Writing what you know may be great if you’re a retired detective, a coroner, an astronaut, or a NASCAR driver, but what if you grew up middle class in the suburbs, spending your free time eating chips and playing video games—how does writing what you know in that case make for an interesting story, especially when it comes to writing fiction? (That would mean most of my stories would be about the wonders of “Munchos” and my disdain for the underwater levels of Donkey Kong Country 2). Writing what you know for many can be extraordinarily limiting. What’s the point of even having an imagination if you can’t use it to take yourself—and your readers—to worlds they, and even you, could never visit?
Here are five reasons why writing only your own personal experience isn’t necessary for crafting a good story:
1. It’s Limiting
As previously mentioned, “write what you know” can work perfectly for people with experiences unlike any others. However, even those who have lived through a great deal can be limited when they stick to mining through their own stories instead of creating new ones. There’s nothing wrong with drawing from your own experience, but it can become a hindrance, especially during the revision process. When a writer becomes attached to their work—any work—it can be tricky business to edit, cutting pieces you love can be like having to give a child away. But that process becomes even more difficult when writing about your own life, telling true stories about events that happened. Not only is it rough, but it can also cause writers to become defensive of their work. When writing fiction, it’s always a good idea to avoid giving preference to the facts of an experience over the fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity.
2. Less Is More
When creating a character, most writers want to develop every aspect of their life and profession. When you know a lot about what your protagonist does, it can be easy to write down everything you know to demonstrate your knowledge of the topic. The same goes for creating a character with a background you’re unfamiliar with, it’s possible to get so caught up in the minutia of showcasing what you’ve learned about the protagonist’s life and profession that the story becomes more about details and less about the plot. It’s a good idea to keep limited what you know and spend more time focusing on the plot and narrative.
3. Research Is Still Essential
While you don’t want to inundate your readers with too much information, that doesn’t mean that research should be completely left out of the equation. With the internet so readily available, doing research no longer involves going on field trips or making trips to the library to spend hours digging through encyclopedias (though if that is your preferred method of research, by all means, go ahead). Minimal research is essential, but that doesn’t mean you have to become an expert on the topic. The research should be used to demonstrate a working knowledge of the topic, not just to add more words onto the paper.
4. Mistakes Happen
No matter how extensive your research is, you’re likely to make a mistake when it comes to writing something that’s outside of your personal experience. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of writers. When people inform you of your errors, accept their advice, respect their opinions, and keep what’s been said in mind for the future. In the end, even if people are upset about something that may have been inaccurate, there’s a silver lining in knowing that someone has, in fact, read your work.
5. “Write What You Know” Is Misunderstood.
While this article has centered around the adage “write what you know” being an incorrect piece of advice, it’s important to understand how “write what you know” is also a largely effective tool to employ. What’s been discussed here is about writing what you know in terms of profession or lifestyle. But one of the best ways to write from your own experience is to make it about something more internal: writing what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. If you’ve ever experienced love, loss, jealousy, fear—write what you know. It doesn’t matter if your experience happened in your suburban hometown or in an army bunker, your readers will be able to connect with the message being put forth, and will feel it too.
“Write what you know” is not the worst advice, but it needs to be understood within the correct context. Incorporate what you know about the human condition, but never feel limited to writing only your life’s experience. With a little research, a strong plot and a lot of heart, you can write a damn good story.
YouTube Channel: Big Think
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h/t Signature Reads