Ask the Editor: Must I Write What I Know?

Dear Alex,
My English teacher keeps telling us to “write what you know,” but this seems very unfair. I doubt that most mystery writers have discovered a dead body, and nobody has lived in a world of magic and dragons. But we have stories about these things and someone wrote them. If I had to stick to writing what I know, I’d only write about swim team practice and visits to my grandparent’s house. Why can’t I write what I imagine?
–Yasmin

Hi Yasmin,

I’m going to give your English teacher the benefit of the doubt. Your teacher isn’t trying to restrict you, but rather empower you. Everyone is unique, your experiences are valuable and interesting, and you know more than you think you do. Most of us have never been on a swim team. What does the water feel like? What does the coach sound like? What does the locker room smell like? And I bet you could tell amazing stories about your grandparents.

You can also write about dragons if you want to. Or dead bodies. Or dead dragon bodies. The trick is not to write what you know, but rather what you’re passionate about. What do you really, really care about? More importantly, what emotions do you want to feel—and what emotions do you want to make your readers feel?

Those two things, passion and emotion, will carry you far. If you’re interested in something, whether it’s mythical creatures, forensic medicine, or the best way to make pasta Alfredo, you’re going to want to learn about it. Most writers have spent many happy hours researching things for their books. And then, suddenly, those writers are writing what they know.

But even more important than the facts, writers have to bring authentic emotion to the page. Readers are reading to have an emotional experience. Readers pick up a romance to feel the flush of first love. Readers pick up thrillers to feel a rush of danger. Readers pick up science fiction to feel the excitement of exploring far-off worlds.

You don’t have to write what you know so much as you have to write what you feel. I’m guessing you’ve never discovered a dead body, but you’ve had something unexpectedly horrible happen to you, whether that’s a bicycle wreck or getting kicked out of your friend group. How did you feel in that moment? Can you recreate those emotions on the page in this fictional situation? You’ve never ridden the back of a flying dragon, but you’ve probably ridden a roller coaster. That same exhilaration and terror should be on the page in your dragon story. Don’t just tell us what your heroine feels, show us her body sensations—her pounding heart and dry mouth, the way she has to close her eyes against the wind and can barely catch her breath before the dragon swoops upward again.

Small touches of what you know will seep into your writing, whether you’re aware of them or not. If your heroine falls off a boat, you’ll know what it feels like for her to swim to shore, and how much her shoulders and legs ache when she gets there. If your heroine has a big family, you’ll know how to write about grandparents—the beautiful accent that Grandpa brought from the old country or the cringeworthy jokes that Grandma tells. Don’t be afraid of putting too much of yourself into your stories. That’s what readers want. They want to know what you know, what you care about, and what you feel.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

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