Don’t Just Write What You Know

Pretty much every writer should be familiar with the adage, “write what you know.” And pretty much every writer has likely had this adage tossed their way at some point, perhaps in a moment when they were venting about writer’s block or pondering what sort of novel they should write.

And it’s legitimately terrible advice.

Yes, yes, I know. Writing what you know can be easy and good; there’s often little to no research required with writing what you know, and that’s always nice because honestly, who enjoys research? It’s so much easier to crack open a laptop (or notepad, or typewriter—hey, you do you) and just start writing. And writing what you know is certainly a good way to start writing. So, sure, by all means, if you’re stuck or if you need to get out of a funk, just write. Do the thing. Color the pages of your word processor (or literal pages—again, you do you) with everything you know, all of your life experiences, your hopes, your dreams . . .

And then write something else. Write something different; write something challenging. Write about something that you don’t have experience with, something that does require research, something that makes you think. Because if you only ever “write what you know,” you’re going to be stuck with a niche that extends only as far as your life does. And, let’s be honest: no one is that interesting. Unless you’ve had the most fabulous, fascinating life ever, unless you’ve had fifty different careers and traveled the globe and have more hobbies than you do bones, you’re probably going to be pretty limited in what you can write about. Limiting yourself as a writer is one of the worst things you can do—to your own growth, to your career and opportunities, and to your readers. It’s unfair and it’s stupid. Especially in the age of the Internet, where research has become a remarkably simplified process and you can read about anything you want with just a click of a mouse.

You still can—and should—use your knowledge and experience to lend credibility to your writing, but focusing exclusively on your own little world would be doing a huge disservice to yourself. The “write what you know” mentality likely contributes to the bland samemess of our books, shows, and movies, and the reason so many of our stories focus on the same sort of people (white, straight people), and the same sort of plots. Daring to write what you don’t know—through careful research, thoughtfulness, and/or imagination—is what will strengthen your writing. Getting out of your comfort zone is almost always a good thing.

Yes, you can write what you know. But you should write what you don’t.