Know the rules, then break them
Everyone who writes will have at least heard, if not been told, that they should “write what you know”. Like most rules, I tend to ignore this one, not because I don’t think it’s valid – it’s one of the most important writing rules that exists – but because the advice is often given by people who don’t know enough about writing to understand the rule. (Or else, they do understand the rule, and are afraid to break it.)
The beginner writer may fret at being told to “write what you know” because they perhaps believe they have little to offer from their anecdotal repertoire. The pressure of justifying what – and why – we write often comes from the people closest to us – family, friends, school or other social circles. Like many societal expectations, the constant reminder to “write what you know” is annoying and inhibiting. It implies that we can only write about the time and place in which we were born, and what we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.
In this sense, if every writer adhered to the rule “write what you know”, nothing new would ever be written.
Rules are excellent guides. They ensure our focus doesn’t stray from the path, and our path doesn’t shift beneath our feet. But rules have their limits, and in creative pursuits like writing, some rules can be bent, and some can be broken.
But this only works if we have an intimate understanding of the rules and, therefore, how they can be manipulated.
So what about the traditional “write what you know” rule? How can you sidestep this pothole without feeling guilty or out of your depth?
Simple. You don’t.
To “write what you know” is to do much more than tell a story about a town, events, people or society with which you’re familiar. It is to impart what you understand, what you feel, and what you imagine about a time and place. More importantly, it is to tell a story using what you have discovered through research, because when you’ve done your research, you know whatever is required to tell a particular story.
Writing what you know is:
- using your knowledge to construct characters that exist within familiar or unfamiliar societies, who function within rational (even if rational only to that character or society) boundaries, and who break the rules at their peril.
- building an entirely new world from scratch, based on what you know of this world.
- researching a time or place you have never visited or experienced, and offering your impression of that time or place to present day readers.
- drawing on your understanding of human nature and situations to relate a story about love, revenge, loss, overcoming adversity, and so on in a way that, no matter what shape or form the setting, characters or events take, is still recognisable because it reflects something existential and fundamental to us all.
The only thing you really need to know as a writer is how to research. That way, you can always learn more than you know, and hence become knowledgeable in a particular topic, genre, time or setting. Therefore, anything and everything you write is created from what you know.
So the next time someone tells you to “write what you know”, tell them:
I already do.