“Write what you know.”
It’s the one piece of writing advice we all receive at some point along our writing journeys. But does it actually mean what we think it means — and is it still “good” advice?
As you may or may not know, writing advice is tricky. It doesn’t always apply to every writer and it doesn’t necessarily mean to imply everyone should treat it the exact same way, even though that’s how most people end up interpreting it and passing it along to others.
Should you stick to writing only “what you know”? Yes — but not, it turns out, forever.
‘Write what you know’ is great advice for brand-new beginning writers. I will admit that I often have a hard time remembering what it’s like to be a beginner. I struggle with this because for me, there was never really a point when I just one day decided I was going to start writing. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. Writing has always been part of my life. It has grown with me.
However, I am fully aware that this is not the case for most people and that there are many who start writing later in life and really struggle. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this — in fact, it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed and unsure when you’re first starting out. It’s very likely that this has been a dream of yours for a long time and the fact that you’re actually trying it now is scary. You really don’t want to fail. You want to prove, at the very least to yourself, that you can do it.
For you, sticking with the subjects and experiences you know best is the perfect way to begin. I will tell a brand-new writer to “write what they know” all day every day if it gives them the confidence and motivation they need to spark ideas and put those ideas into words. Starting out as a writer is anxiety-inducing enough without having to worry about doing a ton of research and trying to put together a complex narrative that you’re not quite ready to tackle just yet.
But here’s the thing about being a writer: You can’t just stay at that beginning stage forever. Sure, you could continue writing the same stories about the same types of people dealing with the same issues forever. But the same way your writing should evolve, so should your strategies. And I personally view “write what you know” as writing advice pretty much exclusive to beginners. It’s usually the only way to start, and the reason so many writers begin with personal essays about their own life experiences. It makes the task of writing more comfortable while they learn and master the basics as they do it.
There comes a point, though, when you have to put this advice behind you and move on — not because you can’t succeed writing the same old things over and over, but because you really shouldn’t.
If you continue to take this advice literally, you will not grow as a writer. Advancing beyond the beginning stages of writing is one of the most rewarding yet challenging periods throughout a writer’s life. While it’s a bit of a luxury to reach a point at which you are no longer completely dependent on outside resources to get a story written or published — many people never get there at all — this does not mean writers in this stage do not still struggle with their own roadblocks.
One of the most bizarre things I found myself wrestling with in college was trying to figure out what being a “better” writer meant for me personally. It’s built into my personality to always want to improve upon a skill I already possess. I wasn’t interested in modifying my sentence structure or vocabulary, I didn’t need to figure out how to develop a character. What I needed was to force myself to write about things I had never experienced before. I needed to learn to see the world from more than just my own perspective.
And because I did that, I’m a better writer now than I would have been if I had just continued writing the same stories only about the things I was most comfortable writing about.
“Write what you know” should not always mean that you only stick to writing about what you are most familiar with. As a beginner, yes, you should absolutely focus on quantity instead of quality — a lot of people aren’t going to agree with me on that and I really don’t care. But eventually you’re going to have to move beyond that if you want to expand your creative horizons and leave your comfort zone, and sticking only with what you know isn’t going to help you do that.
How do you move beyond that comfort zone and improve your skills as a storyteller? You approach every project and situation fully willing to learn and grow.
A writer should never, ever stop learning. In general, humans as a species should never stop learning — it’s the unwillingness to challenge your own beliefs and unlearn certain things you have been taught that makes people unable to accept things like new research proving a long-standing belief may have been wrong.
But as a writer, you should always aim to explore your interests and try new things. The world is evolving, and if your stories don’t evolve with it, you’re going to fall behind.
“Write what you know” might mean that you have to learn more about the subjects you want to address in your work so that you can do so skillfully and accurately. It might mean that you willingly go out of your way to experience new things and try to rationalize why certain characters might behave in different ways.
It might mean you have to be uncomfortable. But that’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world, if it means you can write stories with an open mind and a compassionate heart.
Here’s the disclaimer: If you don’t want to challenge yourself and want to stick with what is most comfortable for you creatively, you are free to do whatever you want. I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong if you do this or tell you that you won’t be successful if you don’t evolve. The best part about being a writer is that you usually have the freedom to write about whatever you want to write about. Go for it.
This advice is for writers who want to do something different then what they have always done. For those who are tired of writing the same stories and sending the same messages about the same issues. For those who want to diversify their characters and settings and storylines. For anyone who just wants to try anything new, even if it doesn’t end up working out.
Do I think you should stay in your creative comfort zone your whole life? No. I will always encourage every growing writer to write about things that are less familiar to them or that they might be hesitant to write about for one reason or another. This promotes growth and shows that you are interested in appealing to a wider scope of audiences.
But not everyone is interested in doing this. So if you just want to write whatever you feel like writing and you’re happy with that, this advice just isn’t for you. Writing should always, first and foremost, be about doing what makes you feel fulfilled and happy. I hope that whatever you choose to do with your writing time, you feel that your work is serving a purpose and you’re good with that.
Just remember: If you ever feel stuck or bored or unfulfilled, changing things up and finding new ways to grow creatively is a wonderful fix for that.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.