If there’s one thing I see consistently, consistently misrepresented on the internet, it’s the writing advice Write What You Know.
For example, Ken Kesey does not know what he is writing.
No, that’s not how it works. And inexperienced writers will fight you all day on this:
- “I hate this piece of writing advice! It's so stupid!”
- “It’s bullshit to think that I can only write about fur trappers in the Canadian wilderness if I’ve been a fur trapper myself!”
- "Don't write what you know! Make up something new!"
- "If I write what I know, does that mean I can't write about things I don't know, like space travel or being a woman?"
- "But what if I don't know anything?"
- “What do you mean? I can’t write about cannibal Martians if I’ve never tasted human flesh?”
No. That’s not what Write What You Know means. That snarky, quasi-revolutionary "make up something new" especially pisses me off. That line should tell you right there that whoever's saying that has no idea what they're talking about when they discuss WWYK. It has nothing to do with originality. Are you going to invent a new emotion? Then go ahead, muchacho, knock yourself out.
I’m sort of tired of explaining it to angry people. Let this blog post stand as a column against the weathers of time, a lighthouse in the dark fog of assumption, here for anyone and everyone to refer back to in times of uncertainty: Write What You Know is not about applying organically-learned occupational or academic knowledge to your writing. In fact, it’s the very opposite of that. You might say it's the reverse: applying your writing to knowledge.
What if I told you that you can research facts and processes without having to know them?
- the maximum depth to which a human body can dive in ocean water without dying
- how to change out a water heater
- the mating habits of the Canadian goose
- Chicago population growth over the course of a decade
- the names of all the demons in the Ars Goetia.
You can look that shit up. You can look it all up, all of it, research the fuck out of it, and then, believe it or not, you can write an authentic ornithologist, or a necromancer, or a deep-sea treasure-hunter, or a census-taker, or an apartment-complex handyman. You can do that! You can do that, even though you’ve never been any of those things. You can write a character that’s an astronaut, even though you’ve never even stepped foot in an airport.
Do you think Anne Rice has any idea what it’s like to be a 1700-year-old vampire? Do you think Stephen King knows what it’s like to be a gunslinger in a medieval wasteland? What about Andy Weir? Do you think he’s been to Mars? Do you think Dan Simmons has his own farcaster portal, able to travel from Mars to Venus on a wordcount-powered tricycle?
Write What You Know is about diving deep into your memories, and using emotions, feelings, and physical sensations to make your writing more palpable, more authentic.
That’s not about filling your shit with information.
Like I said, you can do research for that. You can email professionals to ask for information about the processes they go through at work, or you can read their Wikipedia articles, or you can make a post at the /r/AskScience subforum at Reddit.
The purpose of Write What You Know is to INCREASE IMMERSION.
It’s not to supply your reader with statistics and processes. If I want to know what it’s like to grow potatoes, I’ll look that shit up. Sure, it makes the character sound like they know what they’re doing if you describe the farming of potatoes in faithful detail, but I can’t feel that. I’m not picturing the earthy-musty smell of the manure he spread as the rain kicks up the stink of old cow shit. I can’t hear the crunch of his hoe’s blade slamming into loose soil or the greasy slickness of his sweaty hands after a long day’s work at the rows. I can't taste the crunchy, salty French fries he made after the harvest.
I know how to farm potatoes now, but I don’t feel like I’ve been doing it alongside your character. I was not immersed in the story, because I was just reading a fucking how-to on growing potatoes. What if I'm from the Philippines and have no idea what potatoes are like? I just read an 80,000-word novel about a man that grows potatoes and I still have no idea what it's like to actually grow and eat my own potatoes. I know how, maybe? But I was not in that character's shoes. I watched him do it from the other side of the page, ten million miles away.
That’s what Write What You Know is.
Here’s an example: during the course of your story, your villain murders your protagonist’s spouse. Shoots her husband right in the forehead with a Desert Eagle pistol, shoves his corpse backward into the Grand Canyon. It’s not his fault. It was just his time to go; the story demanded loss, and you had to supply it.
Now it’s time to authenticate your protagonist’s shock and bereavement. That’s where Write What You Know comes in.
Maybe you’ve never lost your spouse. Maybe your husband or your wife is sitting across the room from you right now, quietly playing the latest Playstation game or eating dinner off of a TV tray. But what you have experienced is being dumped by someone you were convinced loved you with all their heart. Or maybe, like me, your stepfather died when you were a teenager and you had a front-row seat to your mother’s grief.
So you know what that bleak, desolate feeling of loss is like. You know what it’s like to have the rug of reality whipped out from under your feet. You know what it’s like to suddenly realize that this person will never again be a part of your life. You understand the source of that almost violent loneliness, you’ve felt the bruise it leaves on your heart. You know what it’s like to cry until your chest hurts and your shirt-collar is soaked in snot and tears, and you know what it’s like to think you’d be able to escape from this hideous screeching pain if you could just drum up the courage to take all the Tylenol in this bottle instead of just one. You've had occasion to think, "Don't leave me! Don't go where I can't follow!"
That’s some shit that you can’t look up on Wikipedia.
Now make me feel that sudden, shocking loss.
Then as your villain blows your character’s brains out and pushes their cooling corpse into the Grand Canyon, time slows and your protagonist forces herself to look over the handrail, to trace the body’s descent into the crevasse.
Maybe you know what it’s like to watch someone tumble down the side of a mountain, arms and legs loose and flailing, dirt and stones clattering down with them, until they slam into the bottom with a sickening crack of skull against stone. Maybe you were there when your friend broke his leg skiing, and you’ll never forget the sound his thighbone made as it broke against a pine tree. Maybe you were in the car accident that knocked your father unconscious and you know what it’s like to see his half-open eyes and slack, bloody face, and think, oh my God he's dead.
Bring the world your pain, feed them your joys. Serve up your own personal heart to your readers on a silver platter. Use your memories and experiences to give your worlds and characters texture.
That’s what Write What You Know means: texture.
Let’s say your character is an astronaut and they’re floating in an abandoned space station, running out of air. Have you ever been in a situation where your source of oxygen was being cut off? Maybe when you were sixteen, you were swimming at the river with your uncle and your floatie raft got hooked by a stick and deflated. You almost drowned because you got tangled in that ripped raft. You understand what that OH GOD I’M GOING TO DIE panic is like, because you’ve been there, floating six feet under the surface of a river, sucking on that last lungful of air.
Now take that memory and make me feel your character’s panic. Make me, your Constant Reader, understand what it’s like to know you are about to die from lack of oxygen. Your hands are jittery and weak, making it hard to turn all the dials and replace the torn hose in your spacesuit. There are black spots at the edges of your vision, making it hard to see. Your heart’s hammering so hard it’s making your throat throb against the collar of your space suit.
Write What You Know means that you need to use your experience as an almost-drowning victim to make me, as the reader, feel like I am about to run out of air.
It’s part and parcel of “show, don’t tell”. Really, when you get right down to it, “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” are almost the same thing; they’re more or less pointing you down the same road. And this road is called IMMERSION. Make me understand your pain, your excitement, your love, your loss, your grief, your melancholy, not just your knowledge or processes. 📚