Write What You Know

Write what you know.

It might be that you’ve read that somewhere before. To my mind, that phrase is easily in the top five “Writing Rules” that get trotted out whenever someone (usually a newer writer) asks about how they can improve their writing.

I confess that this is the rule that I am most likely to break. I do it gladly. How can I not?

If I was restricting myself to “Write what I know,” well… there goes Faster than light travel, far away planets, alien races, Weird Westerns, Magic in all its forms, the works. In short, everything that I enjoy about reading would vanish, smothered under the weight of “Write what you know.”

But what if the person that first coined that phrase meant something completely different?

What if they meant it as a way to improve your characterization. What if it was to help you ground your characters – no matter how fantastical they are – in reality for your readers?

Here’s what I mean:

Your characters have feelings. You, yourself, have had feelings. You have, in fact, had a staggeringly wide array of feelings. Maybe “Write what you know” is advising you to draw upon those feelings – even if there isn’t a one-to-one correlation – to infuse your writing with a bit of realism.

You’ve been happy, sad, angry, in love, excited (in all the possible applications of that word), disappointed, indecisive, driven with purpose, etc. You’ve suffered defeat and been victorious. Not only can you think back to those feelings and remember what they were like, you might also find yourself physically reacting to them. You can draw upon sense memories to infuse your characters with feelings, emotions and reactions about whatever your characters are going through.

Another old saying about writing is (and I’m paraphrasing here), “No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader.” One of the ways to help you get that emotion to the reader is to use what you know about how you felt at one of those moments – or a similar moment. Personally, I’ve never flown a starship through an asteroid field, but I have dodged my car out of the way of someone, or something in the road, and I can use my memory of such a close call to describe feelings that just might put you on the bridge of that ship.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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