Why “Write What You Know” is Such Bad Advice for Writers

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Ask around for tips on how to get started as a novelist and you’ll probably hear this piece of advice.

“Write what you know.”

It’s supposed to be helpful, in suggesting that you mine your own experience for ideas. Much better than chewing through a forest’s worth of pencils while you strain for that “original” idea.

But there are a ton of reasons why WWYK is a terrible idea.

Sci-fi would be off the table, for a start. Unless writers had personal experience of living on Mars or travelling through time.

Ditto horror, although that one is a blessing. I mean, if you know what it’s like to live through a zombie apocalypse, you should probably be seeking counselling rather than writing books.

And it would mean most first novels by writers under 25 would be set in university creative writing departments.

Either that or they’d describe ordinary upbringings in middle-class homes where the biggest conflict a character would have to grapple with was finding decent wifi.

Even for older writers, WWYK isn’t necessarily any better. Unless your career has been spent in the police, the armed forces, the intelligence services or something equally exciting like extinguishing oil rig fires, you’re going to struggle.

Unless your life has been a whirlwind of torrid love affairs or rage-filled excursions into vigilante justice, the vast jungle of human emotion will be off limits to you.

Perhaps this explains why there are so many books in the category known to high-brow audiences as “literary fiction” (and to the rest of us as “those books where nothing happens for 300 pages but the author clearly swallowed a thesaurus) where the story takes place over three generations of north London intellectuals.

And what’s wrong with research anyway? Nowadays there’s this little writing resource called the internet.

Before starting a book set in Kazakhstan I knew precisely nothing about this central Asian republic.

Half an hour later I was taking a virtual walk around Sara-Arky International Airport, checking out the typography of the logo above the passenger terminal.

Or you could ask around. I’ve interviewed army officers, pharmaceuticals professors, hypnotherapists, opticians, garden designers, murder detectives, gun shop assistants, farmers…and you know what?

They’ve all been delighted to share their expertise with me. For nothing. (Though I think it’s only polite to include them in your acknowledgements.)

Here’s my prescription instead.

Write what fascinates you.

Write what you care desperately about.

Write what you wish you knew.

Write what you’ve always wanted to read.

Write what you love.

But above all, write.