Bad Writing Advice: “Write What You Know”

99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.

There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”

Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.

Do you want to read that book?

Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:

“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“Never mind.”

“No, I didn’t–”

“Doesn’t matter.”

You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.

Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.

But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.

Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.

So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”

That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.