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Apr 9, 2021

Write What You Know: Famously Misunderstood Writing Advice

By: Meg Fisher

“Write what you know” is perhaps one of the most hackneyed pieces of writing advice out there. It’s one of the first things you’ll hear in any intro-level writing class and is always bound to be a proposed cure for writer’s block. I’ve been writing for several years, and for a lot of that time, I would cite this phrase as the worst piece of advice one to give to any writer. It just seems too restrictive and simplistic. How could I, in good conscience, endorse any advice that seemed to actively discourage research and exploration? However, I feel that the problems I had with this advice simply arose out of misunderstanding. “Write what you know” can most literally be interpreted as “write about a familiar setting or circumstances that you have lived through.” But to me, “write what you know” refers to the emotional core of a story. It tells you to write about your grief, your fears, your euphoria. 

I believe the best fiction is, to a certain extent, autobiographical. In truth, none of us know anyone better than we know ourselves. You could know someone your entire life and still never predict their every action and thought. For a story to seem human, the author has to bare their soul while writing it. It doesn’t matter how fantastical the circumstances in the story are or how far removed the characters are from the author. It’s playing dress-up. Maybe you’ve never experienced the death of a loved one, but perhaps there are people you’ve lost your connection with who live as ghosts in the back of your mind. Maybe you’ve never developed magical powers, but everyone has experienced whimsy, failure, and mastery of new skills. Use your experiences. Use what is uniquely yours. 

The more human a piece of writing is, the greater the connection between work and reader will be. Storytelling is, at its core, a conversation. The earliest stories were memorized and performed before we had the luxury of writing them down for posterity. Because of this, writing characters can be comparable to acting. Actors can reproduce a wide range of emotions, and while this is certainly a skill, no one would call that ability supernatural. They are simply professionals who know how to draw on their own experiences and feelings and amplify them for the sake of a narrative and for the sake of connection. Great writers develop a similar skill. After all, scenery can be built just as information can be collected through research. It is the performances on stage and the emotional arcs in books that cannot be replicated by robots. 

The best thing a writer can do to make their work matter to their readers is to capitalize on the connection that a great story can cultivate. This is, in my opinion, a way to look at this famous piece of advice without feeling confined by it. While one’s life story may not be fit for an engaging, best-selling memoir, every person’s emotional experiences offer something real and compelling to work with. “Write what you know” is easy enough advice to follow. I’d like to challenge writers instead to write what they feel. 


About the Author
Meg Fisher is a freelance writer and copy editor from North Carolina working toward a degree in screenwriting. She has independently published several short stories and is in the process of penning her second novel -- a mystery novel in which a young girl works to solve the murder of her older brother, who has been haunting her as a ghost for three years. It is a story about growing up, grieving, and learning to move on.