Should you really “write what you know”?


"Write what you know" is bad advice. Here's what to write instead.

“Write what you know” can be such frustrating advice.

While not totally useless for a writer simply searching for ideas, it’s also unnecessarily limiting. To a young writer especially, “write what you know” can make you think, “Well, I’m only [insert your age here] and haven’t even experienced [arbitrary measure of life’s progress]. How much do I really know?”

On the flip side, being told to “write what you know” often leads one to forget all the truly fascinating, unique-to-them things she or he does know and skip right to the mundane or useless knowledge they have. “But I’m only an expert on extreme procrastination, Instagram filters, the benefits of rescuing vs. adopting and making the perfect grilled cheese,” you might think. “Who wants to read about that?”

What makes this advice most counterintuitive of all is that if you suggested to a journalist that she only writes what she knows, she’d think you were crazy. Journalists write about all kinds of things they know nothing about. Researching completely foreign topics and writing about them with authority is part of the job. Why shouldn’t other writers do the same?

My counter-advice? Write what you don’t know.

You’ll learn a whole lot more, and your writing will be better for it.

In her essay “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” Grace Paley explains why, as writers, we should go outside our comfort zones:

“As for an inventing writer, I would say something like this: Now, what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about – and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes.”

Admittedly, by itself, the advice to write what you don’t know can be just as vague and unhelpful as its counterpart. But fear not! I’ve got a few suggestions to get your creative juices flowing. Ask yourself these questions when you’re stuck in a writing rut:

What angers you? What confuses or scares you?

What have you always wished you knew how to do?

Who do you admire most? How do they spend their days?

What was daily life for your parents like growing up? Your grandparents?

Did you read or hear something recently that left you with more questions than answers? Seek out the answers to those questions.

What would your polar opposite be like? Write a story about them or interview somebody like them. Make them sympathetic.

These are merely jumping-off points, but I find them to be far more helpful and interesting than generic topics or ideas. It’s more exciting to think about all the things you don’t know but could and can if you simply dedicate the time to learning about them.

As Confucius said, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”


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