Friday, July 7, 2017

"Write What You Know:" What This Advice Means And How to Apply it

"Write what you know."

It's a phrase that every writer has heard at some point or another. And it scares most of us because we're honest enough to admit to ourselves:

"I don't know anything."

How are we supposed to write orphaned characters if we're not orphans ourselves? How are we supposed to write about Paris when we've only seen pictures of it? How can we capture the essence of the Roman era when we do not, in fact, own a TARDIS? How? How???

That phrase "Write what you know"? It doesn't mean what you think it means. If it did mean what you think it means, it would be absolutely terrible advice that you should not follow, no matter which smart writer may or may not have said it.

I see so many writers worrying about and being limited by this phrase. So if you've ever thought about this rule and screamed, "But I know nothing!!!" this post is for you.
Hannah Heath: Write What You Know: What This Advice Means and How to Apply It - So you think you don't know enough about anything to write about it? Not true. Let me tell you why.
Note: Some sections of this post are copied from different conversations I've had with various writers via email and social media. So if any of it sounds familiar, it's because I'm plagiarizing my past self. 

This phrase is about personal knowledge. For instance: Maybe, unlike your hero, you've never had to watch your entire village burn down. You have, however, known what if feels like to lose something or somebody important to you. You've experienced the emotion of having your world turned upside down, whether because you moved to a different state, watched your parents get divorced, started a new and challenging job, had somebody close to you get sick. You know fear and you know pain because you are human. You were, unfortunately, raised with the knowledge of such things. That is personal knowledge. And that is what you know. It is what you use to write about your hero's loss of a village.

It's about knowing your characters. So you're worried that you won't be able to accurately describe what it's like to live in Singapore because you've never been there? You've seen pictures, but you don't really know what it looks like. You've read descriptions, but you're not positive about the sounds of the city, the mood of the people, the smell of the food. That's fine. Why? Because everyone has a different experience. If we all went to Singapore right now, we'd all come back with different impressions. We'd have noticed different things because we're different people and because people don't generally "know" things. They feel them, see them through their own special lens.

Ultimately, a story is about how events and settings affects the character: How it makes them feel, act, believe. Not what they know. And certainly not what you know.

So find out who your character is. Collect a few of the big facts about Singapore. Now drop her into that new setting and show us how she feels.

It isn't about making you doubt yourself. So how do you write what you know if you don't know anything? Well, first of all: You'd be surprised at how much you actually do know. It doesn't matter how old you are. It doesn't matter if you've lived in the same place your entire life. It doesn't matter if you feel times have changed and left you behind. You do have knowledge. Maybe not big facts or grand histories. But you know emotions because you are alive. You know creativity and love and hope and sadness and beauty and fear.

You know enough.

Don't ever let the idea of not knowing anything stop you. If you ask any honest person, they'll admit that they don't know what they're doing, either. I know I don't. We only come to know things by simply being alive. It's how we learn. We writers have our minds and our imagination. Knowledge is secondary.

It's about being willing to admit when you need help. So maybe there's something you know nothing about. Maybe you're writing a story set in ancient Egypt even though you only ever saw a clip about ancient Egypt on the History channel that one time. Maybe you're writing a character with Down Syndrome though you don't have and don't know anybody who does. Maybe you're writing hardcore science fiction and the only science you know is from Star Trek and you think it possibly isn't a very reliable source (good instinct, by the way). 

That's totally fine. Go read up on ancient Egypt. Talk to people with Down Syndrome, along with their family members. Crack open a science textbook (or go ask your nerdy friends some questions). Explore (but do not implicitly trust) Wikipedia. 

There will be times when you're going to write about things that you know nothing about, but need some knowledge of so that you can give your story a realistic feel. Don't let that scare you off. Read some books, watch some documentaries. Go up to people who you know have knowledge in the correct area and say "Help me, you are my only hope." 

You can do this. 

So yes. Write what you know. Write about what it is to be human, to be alive, to know so little and so much at the same time. If you get stuck, as for help. Just don't be afraid. And never give up. 

What are your thoughts on this phrase? When are some times when you've been afraid of your lack of knowledge and how did you work through it? Let's discuss!

Related articles:
Challenging Writers to Write Honestly 
Why There's No Such Thing as "Just A Story" 
Write What You Want to Write: Why You Shouldn't Follow Current Writing Trends

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  1. This is wonderful! Thank you so much - your blog has helped me get through finishing quite a few of my stories.

    1. This makes me so happy! I'm glad to be of help.

  2. Yes. I love this! I think a lot of the time the "write what you know" advice is misused. Great post, Hannah!

  3. This is so true! I have never experienced death of someone close to me but I was able to write about it because I have experienced emotional loss and separation. I also did research on loss to help me and played sad music while I wrote.
    Great advice Hannah

  4. YES!!! I feel like books and movies are especially at fault (at least in my experience) with misinterpreting this saying. It drives me nuts.

  5. Yes, very true. I know that one reason I love writing is that through my characters, I get to live an experience and have an adventure I never would in my "real" life. But putting my personal experiences (such as getting hurt by a random comment, feeling betrayed by someone, being terrified and not knowing where life is going next) definitely adds depth that wouldn't be there otherwise. There are some things (as in personal experience) that you as an author have more right to write about (excuse the pun :D), because you have experienced it.

  6. Thanks for breaking down the phrase like that. I'd never thought of those points, but they were excellent. I especially like the thought that write what you know has to do with feelings.

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  8. "If we all went to Singapore right now, we'd all come back with different impressions."
    This is so true. I adopted from Kazakhstan and spent a month there. I know (thanks to social media and annual gatherings) several people who went to the same place to do the same thing. We all have different impressions of not only the place but also the process, because we all had different experiences.
    Great article!

  9. Hi Hannah
    Been a while since my last comments. Just to say that I've decided to officially do a blog of my own, and have just done my first post today!

    Here's the link to check it out! ;)

    1. Deborah, this is awesome! Go you! Thank you so much for letting me know.


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