What Does ‘Writing What You Know’ Mean?

Ah, the adage ‘write what you know’. Many writers, especially those who consider themselves creative, cringe at the very idea of limiting themselves to writing what ‘they know’. Others, who espouse the idea, assert that lived experience is the only thing you’re allowed to write. Well, I’m here to bludgeon both ideas to death.

First off, what does the phrase even mean? Let me ask you, what does it mean ‘to know’? How do you come ‘to know’ something? The answer: through experience. Now, to all of the ‘creative writers’ on this page, sit your egos down. I will explain in depth what I mean. As for the ‘lived experience’ group, stop cheering because you haven’t won anything and on top of that you guys are guilty as well.

For the operational definition, I take the term ‘experience’ to mean anything you’ve experienced. This includes lived experience, infomation you’ve taken in through your senses, everything you’ve said, thought and done, and of course everything you’ve learned up until now. Learning is critical to human beings, and of course to the writing process. Lived experience is great and all, but it isn’t everything.

So, what does the adage mean? In short, it means do your research. I think most writers can agree that research is important…right? When you research something, you come to know and understand it. Once you ‘know’ it, then you can write it. Now the adage doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it kinda makes sense. To give you an example, do you honestly think anyone could write a good story about WWII without any prior knowledge of it and without doing any research whatsoever?



The answer is no.

‘But, how is it even possible to write a great story without ever having lived that life!?’ said the group of ‘lived experience’ fanatics in anger. Their minds were blown, and their egos were now in tatters.

Please apologize to all fiction writers. Look, as long as you do your research into a given topic or event, you’ll be able to create a story which may be indistinguishable from reality (of course this is assuming that you do proper research). In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard, but there are quite a few great stories which claimed to be based on real experiences but actually weren’t. Readers and critics couldn’t even tell the difference until they began digging into an author’s past, so don’t say it isn’t possible, because it is. As someone who loves and studies psychology, the amount of emotions and reactions a human being can experience in any given situation is plentiful but limited, so there’s that as well.

And that’s about it for this lesson. I hope I was able to clear some misunderstandings about the phrase and teach you guys something as well. If you have any comments or criticisms, or just want to add something, leave them down below.

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