“Not Knowing What It’s Like” Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Write About It

A writer needs a chance to grow.


I have a very bad habit of reading Facebook comments on articles. I can’t help it. I am a storyteller, therefore, I want to know what other people are thinking about the news and issues brought up through things other people have written. It makes me less judgmental. Occasionally, it gives me reassurance, when someone defends an argument I haven’t had the chance to yet.

Yet often the downside is that I read far too many comments from strangers who react to certain pieces of writing as if they have been personally attacked. “You don’t know me,” they type. “You don’t know what it’s like to live the way I live.”

In some cases, I suppose, that may be true. But that’s making the assumption that a writer hasn’t done there homework. And there are many that do.

The problem I have with journalism and editorial writing (not the same thing, for those who aren’t sure), is that sometimes a writer puts their thoughts and opinions before the experiences and feelings of others. Even I’ve made this mistake. But what bothers me is when writers really do try to understand, and do their research, and paint a picture of what life is like for someone different than themselves, and they’re still criticized for writing about something “they’ve never been through.”

Not all readers have reactions like this, but many do. True, you can’t speak to all perspectives on one issue with one piece of writing. No one ever experiences a situation the same as someone else. But why should that stop you from trying to see the world through another person’s eyes?

I personally have been through some things I’m still too sensitive, even as a writer, to write about and publish. Yet there are those who are far enough removed from their own struggles who are also writers and who can speak to how it feels, or might feel for some people. And there are also those who are skilled writers who haven’t been through it, but have the capability to talk to people like me, and to tell our stories for us – not because we don’t want to, but because maybe we’re not ready to, in the same way.

There are plenty of things in my life I haven’t experienced firsthand, haven’t yet, or never will. Something I have come to love about fiction is that, as an author, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been through it or not. If you can do your research, talk to people who have survived it, understand something and then create characters and circumstances that show what it’s like to live through these things – even if you haven’t – readers, if you do it right, don’t know the difference.

I think we limit ourselves far too much, when we assume we can only “write what we know.” What if you want to write about something you don’t know? Then you research and interview and learn until you DO know, as best you can. If I only let myself write about things I’ve felt, seen and heard, every single one of my stories would be the same. That’s not the kind of writer I want to be. And I’m sure you don’t, either.

If someone gets something wrong about a subject, if they don’t go deep enough, if they miss the mark, then maybe they need to hear about how it really is. But I wish people understood “teachable moments.” Attacking someone for being “wrong” or “not understanding” doesn’t make them any more knowledgeable about your circumstances. If a writer doesn’t know, they need to be told – but in a constructive way. Don’t discourage them from gaining a new perspective. I’m really tired of seeing that.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.