Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Advice to, "Write What You Know"

Reading thuRsday

Doubtless you've heard the advice to, "Write what you know." It's at least as old as L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, in which the precocious red-head publishes a story about Avonlea after all her high-minded romances have been rejected.

"But," you object, "we wouldn't have hobbits and Narnia if we only wrote what we know."

That might be true, if you take the advice literally.

Like the gossip game, where players relay whispered messages and then laugh at the garbled version that comes out of the end of the chain, I suspect we've received only a degenerate version of the advice.

We should say, "Write what you know, not what you think you know."

L. M. Montgomery's Anne thought she knew the style in which she should write. Contemporary writers often think they should write in a particular genre (sparkly vampires) or to a particular audience (YA) because they know those are hot.

Distinguishing between what you know and what you think you know is often difficult because most of what we know is actually what we think we know.

Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that writing what you know isn't about the facts and information at your command, or even about your experiences. Writing what you know is fundamentally about what you understand.

The advice to "write what you know" should also be understood as advice to, "Write what you love." Sometimes your heart knows what you know better than your reason.

That's why, if you love a world no one else has seen yet, you can honestly say you're writing what you know.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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