“Write What You Know” vs “Write What You Think”

I ran into this interesting and illustrative passage on a writer’s blog recently:

I wanted to follow the advice given to writers: “Write what you know.”.  Well, I know I don’t like religion.  Spirituality is fine, sure, but when it gets organized, it kinda loses something, I think.  That something being common sense and spiritual exploration.  They get swapped with intolerance and dogma.
So, in the story, I wanted an allegorical religion that just does everything wrong.  It spreads dogma with an iron fist and its leaders simply use the religion to enforce control and gain power.

Let’s set aside the dubious goal of intentionally writing a religious strawman and focus on the old chestnut, “write what you know.”  It’s as close to universally-good advice for writers as there is, mainly because it’s common sense: Naturally you should play your strengths rather than flaunting your ignorance.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard it misinterpreted.

“What you know” refers, of course, to your factual knowledge; the more you have of your subject matter (not necessarily the more you include in the story), the more veracity and the fewer jarring inaccuracies it will have; for instance, if you set a story in your hometown, you’ll be able to use real places and know how long it takes to get between them, something that’s difficult to estimate about any city you haven’t actually lived in.  You may also write more vibrant, realistic descriptions and generally treat the setting more like a real place and less like a generic backdrop.

The key is that we’re talking about concrete, verifiable things here.  Not that everything should be stated in dry textbook fashion, but you can, for instance, find a record store on Colorado Blvd called Penny Lane, as featured in the “Hipster Lessons” chapter of my last NaNoWriMo, set in my current (if not native) Pasadena.  Subjective statements will always be intermingled (I might mention that Mijares has the best Mexican food in Pasadena, because it totally does), and they too can add to the effect–as long as they’re the proper opinions of the characters they portray–because realistic things provoke reactions.

The rule, however, becomes utterly inapplicable when applied directly to subjective statements.  In fact, it’s meaningless.  “Write what you know” inherently implies that these things can be known, and thus can be included factually in the story; applying it to either an undecided issue or a completely subjective issue is actually counterintuitive.  Does it just mean that the characters in the story express opinions agreeing with you?  Or do factual conditions exist in the story that don’t in real life, for the purpose of bolstering your position?

The quote indicates the latter; it’s a common enough, although poor, literary strategy.  In realistic fiction, it often manifests itself as “new evidence is discovered.”  New evidence is discovered proving that vaccines cause detrimental health effects–and it turns out that the anti-vaccine camp, which happens to include the author, were right all along!  This is simple author tracting; I don’t need to discuss why it’s inadvisable, except to point out that it contains none of the benefits of actually “writing what you know,” adding no depth or veracity.

This is not “writing what you know.”  This is “writing what you think.”  I seriously doubt that authors need to be told to put their opinions in their works.  There’s a pervasive tendency to try to write things you don’t know much about, primarily out of the misguided notion that anything you’re actually familiar with is normal and therefore uninteresting, making the old adage an always-useful suggestion.  However, I don’t know anyone with a pervasive tendency to write opinions they personally disagree with; it’s far easier to make all the characters and the setting agree with you, even if you aren’t trying to.  With opinions, the better advice is “write what you don’t think.”  Stretch yourself; make your characters show the diversity of the real world.

And, whatever else you do, don’t justify your straw world because it’s “what you know.”


1 Comment

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One response to ““Write What You Know” vs “Write What You Think”

  1. What a fantastic misinterpretation of “write what you know.” Just write fiction that embodies your opinions? Sheesh. And that advice had already lost its luster, too.

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