A Better Interpretation of “Write What You Know”

In the previous post, I wrote about the problem of taking “write what you know” literally and what you can do instead.

There is another interpretation that can help writing feel more visceral and realistic. “Write what you know” is practically useless when it comes to cold hard facts, but can be a useful tool if applied to our emotional experiences. Bear with me; I’ll try to stop this from becoming too wishy-washy. Remember that feeling of disappointment when you were passed over for an award or a promotion or a raise? How about when you discovered someone you liked already had a partner? How exactly did that feel? Was it a feeling of free fall or a weight in your stomach or a tightness in your throat or a heaviness in your limbs? Physical cues for emotions can be incredibly useful in fiction.

Let’s see an example of this in action. I will give you two (probably mediocre but hopefully you get the idea) pieces of text describing the same emotion:

He felt sad.

Next one:

His legs collapsed, sending him sprawling to the floor. A half-swallowed gasp squeezed its way out of his painfully tight throat.

The first one tells us very little. The second one, within the context of a story, tells us much more about the character himself, how he physically reacts to sadness. There are also different levels of sadness, which the first example doesn’t capture. The second one, however, tells us this is an extremely potent form. The first guy could just be sad there were no apples left at the supermarket, while the second guy could have just lost a loved one. Paying attention to our reactions to emotions is the best possible interpretation of “write what you know”. Watching other people can also help, but I’d advise you not to do this in, shall we say, socially unacceptable scenarios.

Bad novels (although readers have different interpretations of what is a bad novel) are often perceived to be so because they feel false to the reader. Something is off. The author doesn’t appear to have a clear grasp on human behaviour or emotion. This can happen if the characters don’t quite react realistically to what is being thrown at them, and is often a result of the author not paying enough attention to the nuances of how mind and matter interact to create emotion. We all run into this problem at some time or another with our own writing. It can be hard to perfectly capture how a character is feeling in a given moment. I suck at it myself.

Interpreting “write what you know” as an invitation to incorporate our own emotional experiences into our writing is far more helpful than taking the advice to mean knowledge of facts which, while important, generally aren’t that difficult to find. Emotional experience, however, when incorporated into a story, can make even the most outlandish tale feel real to the reader.

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11 thoughts on “A Better Interpretation of “Write What You Know”

  1. Hi there! I just found your blog on the AWW blogging forum. I totally agree with you that emotion in a character is so much more important than “writing what you know.” Lending your own emotional experiences to a character, scene, or situation in a novel can make an otherwise dull idea pop.

    Thanks for the interesting post! I’ll definitely be back.

    Erin
    http://www.erinbradypike.com

  2. This is a great example of “show, don’t tell”.

    I think the greatest tool we writers have is observation. When I first started writing, my professors would note that I was trying too hard to give my characters emotion. They never seemed genuine. So before working on a second draft, I’d spend some time just watching people walk through campus, enjoying parties, etc. I’d also reach out to memories of my past and remember how I felt during certain events.

    • Sounds like a great way of writing without writing, if that makes sense. The ideas are still developing even when you’re nowhere near your manuscript. Next time I get stuck, I will have to try watching people around university.

  3. If every writer followed exactly the write what you know “rule”, the vast majority of books would be about white, middle-class men. I agree, it is something that should be used to give life to characters, not limit them or the world they are in. I think this is how most writers view it, but it somehow gets confused when taught to new writers.

  4. Great post! I’ve actually thought this over quite a few times in the past. Sometimes it’s a little hard for me to put words to feelings of incredible dread I’ve experienced before. There’s this one distinctive feeling in particular that I’d love to be able to describe one day. You know, without overdoing it.
    =)

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