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That Old Chestnut: Write What You Know

Oh yeah, this piece of advice. I remember it well. Most writers do. But as a fresh young writer years ago, I don't think I fully understood what the phrase "write what you know" means. It shouldn't be a constraint (storytelling, in itself, is about exploring limitless possibilities, expressing ourselves freely, and transcending the boundaries of our realities). New writers agonise over this. Well, I'm going to explain why you don't have to. You're probably already writing what you know, without even knowing it (see what I did there?).

Don't get me wrong: it's good advice. Profound, in many ways. At its core, "write what you know" urges writers to draw from their own personal experiences, emotions and observations to create relatable narratives. By doing this, you can infuse your stories with authenticity and - with any luck - ideas that will resonate with your readers on a deep level.

I can see how writers just dipping their toes into the creative field might worry that they shouldn't write about spaceships and monsters and post-apocalyptic wastelands because they haven't first hand experienced those things, but that's not what "write what you know" means. It's more about tapping into a wellspring of your emotions, drawing from your own experiences and the experiences of those close to you. It's accessing genuine feelings and sensations, and then using those feelings and sensations to build characters and settings and plots.

You can write the most outlandish situation you can think of, but if you infuse it with a real emotion that a reader can connect with, then your setting won't matter (and you'll be writing what you know). Most of us will experience loss or heartbreak at some stage in our lives, but only you will feel loss and heartbreak in your way. That's writing what you know - or, well, knowing what you know. But still, if you end up tapping into those feelings, you can write with conviction and authenticity (even if the story is set on board a spaceship).

Maybe your protagonist needs a little character-rounding, so you give them a hobby. It's fine to pick whatever suits them, but it's even better if it's something you have experience with, as you can write it from your own personal understanding and utilise how that hobby makes you feel.

Pretty much anything you do in life - and who you are - can provide authenticity to your stories. It might be a profession you've worked in, a hobby as mentioned above, or a cultural background that you've grown up in. Your expertise can lend credibility and depth to your writing. You can portray the intricacies of a particular setting, the nuances of a character's behaviour, or the complexities of a social dynamic with precision.

But wait!

It's important to say that writing what you know doesn't mean being limited solely to your own experiences. Again, it's not about confining your creativity or imagination, or disregarding research. It's more about infusing your writing with the essence of your personal encounters while also exploring and expanding beyond them. It's a mix of authenticity and creative exploration.

You can also extend this into other fields, such as non-fiction works. By sharing your own stories and insights, you have the potential to inspire and educate others. Your unique perspective can shed light on universal truths and sets your voice apart from others.

And if that's not enough, you can also frame it as a way to make sense of your own life - to reflect on the things you've learned, and find meaning and catharsis in your creativity. Many people understand that writing is therapeutic and a great form of self-expression.

So yes, sometimes it sounds a bit trite and repetitive, but generally when someone tells you to "write what you know" they have the best intentions at heart. Consider some of the reasons above why it might be worth listening to this age-old advice.

Do you know of any other common writing nuggets of advice that you'd like to share? Drop me a comment below.

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