Write what you know – debunking the myth

If you keep up with any writing advice on social media, or even in books about writing, you’re bound to have seen the advice, ‘Write what you know.’

It implies you should only write about stuff that you know about or have experienced.

Let’s get one thing straight – you already know a great deal. Not necessarily what it’s like to be an astronaut or a potholer but there are things you can tap into that will enable you to write about such things.

Good advice?

If you only ever wrote about what you know, you would be limited to your own experiences, but it doesn’t bode well for when you want to write that best-selling murder mystery. Unless you’re already a detective (er … or a murderer).

So how do authors write about things they’ve never done? They do it all the time and they can’t all be astronauts or potholers. So somewhere along the way it’s starting to look like writing what you know isn’t such good advice.

But …

Write about the emotions and reactions you know about

In your comfortable, settled life things will have happened to you that cause emotions; love, happiness, loss, surprise, shock, fear, sadness – you name it. These emotions are recognisable by other humans because we are all sentient beings – we perceive and feel things. These are the things we do know.

We react to events based on our personality; past experiencing will elicit certain behaviours in new experiences and the resulting emotions. It’s what makes people tick and you can tap into this and make it believable.

We all react to things differently and you will have come across this in your life. Somebody faints in the store. There are the people who come forward to help, those who call a doctor or ambulance, and those who stand by and watch. When everyone has dispersed there will be those who are still concerned about that person’s welfare and those who might think the person who collapsed was selfish or attention-seeking. It depends who you are and how you see the world.

When you write about feelings and reactions, the reader will also use their knowledge of how they would react and feel. Put the reader into the emotional situation. They might just question their own reactions and decisions – a good thing where writing is concerned.

Use your past experiences and the reader will use theirs

You don’t have to know exactly what it feels like to be followed at night down a dark alleyway, you can imagine it because you will already know what fear is like. You can imagine the ‘pushing’ sensation as you try to hurry away from the threatening situation, your quickened breathing, the panic, the urge to scream.

You make the situation believable because you can write about associated feelings – the things you know and the things the reader will know as well.

Research what you don’t know

Of course, if you are writing about that astronaut, potholer, or stamp collector, you will have to do your research. These are the factual things you need to know but don’t know yet. Research your facts but don’t overload your story with them. Write what is necessary to make it believable.