In writing group last week, we discussed the oft-cited advice to write what you know. Understandably, many new writers are baffled by the advice. Doesn’t writing only what you know severely limit what you can actually write? How about all of those of us who are writing fantasy, or science fiction, or who are inventing an imaginary world?

Also, how can we be sure that we know enough about the things that we are writing about, or want to write about? If we’re writing historical fiction, for example, how much research do we need to do until we can feel that we know enough to even broach the subject? So many writers get stuck in what I call research-its, an affliction that causes you to remain forever stuck in the research phase, unable to progress to the fun part: the writing phase. 

I get enough questions about this piece of advice that I knew I needed to address it with my writers in writing group. I hoped that it would bring about some breakthroughs. What I did not expect was the stunning degree of improvement that I would see in each and every one of my writers once they grasped the true meaning behind “write what you know.”

This is how the session went: I quoted a few famous authors speaking on the subject of writing what you know. Then, my writers contributed their own thoughts, and we managed to boil down what “write what you know” actually means into a few key ideas.

Here is what we came up with:

-“Write what you know” truly pertains to emotion.

Have you ever known intense happiness? Extreme sadness? Unrequited longing for something? Just as actors do with the Stanislavski method, apply that to your writing, but apply it in all of its strength, complication, and ugliness. “Write what you know” loses its power when you dilute the emotions in order to make them prettier or less embarrassing to write about.

-No one can tell you what you do and don’t know.

If you have had a powerful experience that gave you the impression that you have truly sensed and seized the essence of something, then you know it. And now you are free to write about it, and to capture and express that essence as well as you can.

-“Write what you know” works best when you faithfully express what you have gleaned from intense observation, and augment it with research and imagination.

Think about writing as though you were a movie camera. That’s the level of detail the reader craves.

-“Write what you know” does not mean writing only about yourself, about what happened to you, and about what you did.

It means being able to express emotions and experiences that are common to all humanity, that are recognizable and digestible by your reader. It’s the difference between a boring memoir that only appeals to those who know you, and a work that inspires multitudes and that actually matters.

-Telling a story can affect you as much as reading a story, if not more.

So a piece of advice to writers would be to write about what you wish to know, about what you wish to experience, about that which obsesses you. By writing the story, you can come to know things much more intimately.

Once we understood what “write what you know” actually means, I gave my writers the three steps for using “write what you know” to make their writing more powerful:

-Step One:

Pinpoint an emotion you want to explore in a scene in your book.

-Step Two:

Meditate on the emotion and on how it will be expressed through and experienced by your character.

-Step Three:

Write the scene in as detailed a way as you can. You can always edit and pare down later.

My writers have works in progress that range from Gothic horror to literary fiction to young adult to fantasy and even non-fiction and Christian fiction, but in every single case, they reached breakthroughs in their writing when it came time to complete our weekly writing exercise. It was wonderful to see how much more powerful and effective their writing became just from keeping these concepts in mind. So whether you’re a new writer or a more experienced one, give it a try: write what you know, and let me know what you think!