If you’re looking for either a full-time writing gig or a freelancing opportunity, you may see something along the lines of: Experience preferred in [subject matter.]
The idea behind those qualifiers, is that an article will be of better quality (and faster written) if it’s about “something you know.” Can a writer pen an article about how to make a good doughnut when they really prefer chocolate chip cookies? Yeah, absolutely. The idea that “write what you know” doesn’t always work, because all writers — regardless of whether you’re a subject matter expert or not — have to spend a fair amount of time researching and reading the subject you’re writing about. When you’re a writer, you are an experienced wordsmith who understands how to provide clear and engaging prose. By its very nature, our profession requires us to be versatile.
Writing “what you know” can have an influence in other areas for non-fiction including: where you pitch and whether or not you’re a good fit for the publication. For marketing purposes, publications often want their writers to have a “tie” back to the subject in either a professional or casual way. A lot of times, this opens up opportunities for ghost writers, because not every mountain climber/CEO/politician is a good writer.
In fiction, however, “write what you know” takes on a different meaning because it’s fiction. Have you trained a dragon personally? Are you a necromancer in real life? Have you built a robot?
Um, yeah. You get the idea. Here, “write what you know” might be better understood if I rephrase it as: “write what you’re comfortable with.” Here’s some examples of that: I’m not a religious person, but you will see both religious and non-religious characters in my fiction. I enjoy writing horror and stories with darker themes, but I don’t normally write so-called gore porn because I’m not comfortable with straight-up slasher flicks that are light on plot.
Writing what you’re comfortable with also has subtle meanings and consequences. If you like a genre — like science fiction — then you’re probably reading other authors and know what other readers are reading. Last year, I wrote a short story that didn’t work, because I wasn’t comfortable with the genre I was writing in. This year, I wrote a couple of short stories that did work, because I knew the setting cold and had a lot of fun with them.
When I was starting out, I did write some stories that had a personal theme to them — and I’m glad I did. I would NEVER publish those stories professionally, but what those stories taught me was invaluable. First, it’s a BAD idea to “write what you know,” because it’s almost impossible to get a bird’s eye view of your story. Critiques? Oh, man. Talk about taking things way, way too personally. Often, what happens in real life doesn’t make a good story because, like movie dramatizations, there are things that have to be altered/omitted/etc. in order for it to fit the structure of a tale. Even in literary fiction, the character (or characters) are often irrevocably changed by their experiences. In real life? Do you think people like change?
Hah. Do I really have to answer that? [Insert current political climate here.] No, no they don’t. If people liked to change, then we wouldn’t have as many arguments about who puts the cap on the toothbrush and who deserves what rights as we do. Characters, however, do change.
And that, my dear readers, is where writing what you know can be a benefit to your work. Focus on the emotion. How something feels is a great thing to share with your readers, because emotions reach past cultural boundaries — it touches all of us. We fear. We grieve. We’re happy. We’re sad.
And we’re out of caffeine…
What does “write what you know” mean to you?