What Does It Mean To “Write What You Know?”

write what you know

Writing what you know could be defined as how well we, as writers, examine life. To connect with a reader, you must give them an experience, colored by details found in our shared experiences.

Write what you know. We hear that phrase all the time. Some profess it the basis of good writing, especially for new writers. Others claim the missive false, that writers should be able to write anything, or they are at their best when having to dig down and research.

But there’s more to writing what you know than referencing the education, history, experience, emotional baggage, hobbies, and profession of a writer’s life as the basis for a piece.

Virginia Woolf once wrote this directive in an essay in The New Yorker.

Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.

Writing what you know isn’t necessarily about taking a micro viewpoint or getting the technical details correct. In other words, it’s not about drawing from your factual knowledge or unique lived experience. Writing can simply be about incorporating the mundane, the daily existence, and the commonality of man into a story that can resonate with the many.

The way a woman takes a flower, a slight tremor in her hand. The release from the bush causing a petal to come loose and float to the ground at her bare and dirty feet.

We, the reader, have somewhat connected because all of the descriptors are within our wheelhouse. But the reader now wants to know where this is. Why the tremor? Why is she dirty? Is something bothering her?

We now hunger for the bigger picture. But we got there connecting with the reader through what we could effortlessly write about. Something tangible in our history, which often means easily within the reader’s world, too.

Build worlds with what you know

Move on to science fiction or fantasy. Either genre’s architecture is founded in world-building. The worlds are foreign to the reader, which intrigues. However, if the writer cannot bridge that alien environment into a more human understanding (i.e., readers, all being human beings on Earth), then the story disconnects.

Lord of the Rings is about the quest, the interactions amongst peoples, and the destinies of the world. Yes, there are Ents and Orcs and Dwarves, but the high concept of the hero’s journey can be understood by anyone because it’s the commonalities and comparisons amongst the beings that draw the reader in. It’s still about the people. It’s still about feeling aligned with the character, regardless the shape or form it takes.

Writing what you know could be defined as how well we, as writers, examine life. In other words, you don’t necessarily see a boat on the water. You see the spray leaving drops on the Bimini top. The connection with the reader comes into play by you showing the detail of the spray, which the reader would be familiar with if they thought about it — but they haven’t. You, the author, reminded them of that detail that they haven’t taken time to absorb. You are giving the reader an experience.

Instead of a boy feeling left out of a neighborhood baseball game, you see the dated bat of his grandfather propped between his hand and ripped sneaker. You hear the sniffle from a recurring allergy that has made his mother over-protect him. Suddenly, a character wanting to play ball is a kid we recognize from our own experience.

Focus on the commonplace

Some say you have to be of a certain age to capture such detail. You must grow beyond self or the judgment of others, recording what life passes before your eye. Age may assist some in prioritizing the compartments of the world, but in reality, it’s more of a slowing-down, a conscious decision to let the commonplace of life become important.

Regardless, realize that writing what you know might be more a matter of writing what you see. Avoid being heavy-handed with descriptors, though. Get real with the moment and, at the risk of offering an age-old admonition, avoid the adverb.

Stephen King stated in On Writing about adverbs:

Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

Writing what you know is best served in a truth and best delivered connected to your own experience. That’s why many writers begin with a first-person essay or a memoir. While that is the purest way of writing what you know, it’s not necessarily the best.

Your life experience might not, at first blush, be interesting to a stranger. However, take that visceral feeling you incurred during an experience and insert it into a tale and, voila, you are writing what you know in whatever story you like.

Any writer uses write what you know to a certain degree. Just realize that writing what you know does not mean verbatim or precisely linked to your personal life. It has a wider interpretation, but it still contains a part of you.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I’m writing light, funny (hopefully) fiction for the older adult. I know most will be going gag, gag and sputter, sputter over the word older. I’m writing what I know! I wish there was a better term than older adult. Words like seasoned or experienced adult make it sound like porn.

  2. As a first-time author of an adventure novel set in my home town during Super Storm Sandy, this was both enlightening and encouraging!
    Thank you!

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