You’ve probably heard the phrase “write what you know.” It’s a pretty common phrase among writers. I did a quick Google search and didn’t come up with a source for the original quote, so I’m just going to give my thoughts.
I break up the meaning of this quote into two main views:
Write what you know means:
- write about experiences and situations that you have personal knowledge about.
- write about human conditions to which everyone can relate.
The first one is great because if you know everything is to know about being a janitor, then you can write about a janitor that, I don’t know, is a swashbuckling pirate during the day, and sweeps floors at night. You’ll nail the janitor details so well that your janitor readers will be left astounded at your accuracy.
The problem with the first one, is that you, like the rest of us, don’t know everything. You might know everything to know about janitorizing, but do you know anything about being a pirate? I feel this definition has too many restrictions if taken in such a literal sense.
Of course the argument could be said that you just need to learn the things outside your knowledge base and then you can “know” about them well enough to write them. This is a valid viewpoint and I would argue that you should spend time learning about places, people, cultures, and viewpoints contrary to your own. Get certain details correct and people will assume you are an expert.
The second definition takes a broader view. It means we’re not so much in the weeds on specifics, but we’re floating around in the sea of human emotions. Just because you grew up in a farming town in rural Minnesota doesn’t mean you don’t understand what it’s like to have your heart broken by a surfer girl in San Diego.
The second definition deals more with emotions. Love, fear, disgust, happiness, etc. These are shared human conditions. Sure, the scenery might change and the languages might change, even the color of your skin versus your character’s skin color, but we all bleed red when cut. We all share the same instincts, the same fears, the same dreams for our children and ourselves.
And really, the emotional connection is ultimately what drives a story. This is why I don’t think anyone should shy away from writing “the other”. We’re all human. The rest are minor details that merely pepper in the background of the human condition. Of course you should get your facts as accurate as possible, but you will never achieve perfection. Don’t stress the small stuff, for it is all small stuff.
So write what you know, dammit! Pour your heart, your feelings, your dreams out onto the page through your characters. If you feel like making it easier on yourself, write about a profession, locale, or skill you have intimate knowledge about, to add richness and color to your story, but also spend time learning about the others.
Ultimately, it’s about the shared human condition, and therein lies your know.