“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.

Three Consequences of Always “Writing What We Know”


We’ve all gotten this piece of advice at least once before: “write what you know.” On the surface, it’s not the worst slice of writing advice you’re ever going to get. First starting out, writing what’s familiar to us is how we begin finding our voice, familiarizing ourselves with our style and learning, essentially, how to write a story.

That’s all fine early on. But as we mature and writing becomes like an organ (we can’t function without it), we need to—dare we take this route? Yes—exercise it.

What happens to your heart if you just sit around all day, every day? Basically, eventually, it fails.

So does your ability to craft good stories, if you don’t work to maintain and refine it.

What’s the best way to suffer creative failure? Well, writing what you know, and only what you know, of course.

What happens when we get too cozy with the easy, the familiar, the safe?

Here are the consequences.

We give ourselves permission to be lazy

Somewhere, somehow, there has risen a belief that doing research, writing outside our expertise, spending just as much time learning as we do writing isn’t healthy for our creativity. We’ve been convinced writing “what we know” is the most effective way to convince our audience we know what we’re doing and they can trust our credibility. No Googling required. Right?

Over time we’ve misinterpreted the idea that we should base our stories on ideas we hold dear to our hearts. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can only base stories, characters and themes off of things that are familiar to us. There’s a big difference between basing a story entirely off our lives and taking an original idea and applying new, well-researched, often unfamiliar themes to create a new, exciting and fresh perspective on something we’ve all heard, read and experienced a thousand times before.

We lock our creativity in a cage 

Creativity is supposed to be freeing, exhilarating and spontaneous. Yes, writers do make things up on the spot, make up words, worlds, cultures. We do a lot of things without bothering to look anything up or ask an “expert.” But what happens when that’s all we do, when the same author writes based off her limited amount of experiences (for each of us can only have so many worthy of a good story) and creates the same characters, worlds, storylines over and over and over again?

New ideas may seem like they come out of nowhere, but there’s always something that coaxes them out of the depths. Looking things up, learning something new, expanding your knowledge base, that’s how new ideas, the really good ones, come about. Going beyond what you know allows your own creativity to grow and thrive. If you keep your mind at the same level, never letting it grow, your stories will become formulated, and once there’s a template, you’ve officially killed the diversity of your ideas. 

We let ourselves get comfortable

Part of the challenge, and thrill, of making up our own stories is teaching ourselves how to write outside our comfort zones. Writing “uncomfortably” means writing those scenes we’re afraid to write; “going there” when we’re not sure we’re ready. Bringing to the surface those truths everyone else keeps too concealed between the lines.

Never let yourself fall into a literary rhythm. How do we get caught in this trap? By sticking with what we know. By never daring to be uncomfortable. Let’s say small-town life is what you know best. Sorry Nicholas Sparks, but I need to drag you in here for a second. Not every story you write has to, or should, take place in a small southern town where everyone knows everyone.

Dare to write about characters who live in big cities, in different places around the world. Don’t know anything about big cities or different places around the world? Research. Travel, if you can. Get out there. Do something. For the sake of your creativity and your writing and maybe hopefully eventually your future career.

Your heart is meant to beat. Your creativity is meant to thrive. Don’t stick with the everyday routines that aren’t doing anything for your stories. Be adventurous, even if that means spending a few hours reading articles, watching documentaries. Let your mind wander where it never has before. Be terrified. Look at what you’ve just written, that page you want so much to delete—and don’t.

Start with what you know. Then dare to write what you don’t.

It will become almost like an addiction, but a healthy one. The only consequence of being addicted to writing, we suppose, is having too many stories to keep track of all at once.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.