We all have heard it a thousand times. From the prolific to the experts to just about so many random writers, we all have come across this writing advice that sounds like “Write what you know.” It is comforting advice for many writers because all they have to do is write what they know. But again, it is that one advice that has curbed many a writer.
My debut book, a women’s fiction novel, Sandcastles, was set in a place I have never been to — Goa, India. I wrote it when I was 22 and still in college, and all I had were some maps to study Goa in India. Even internet was scarcely available and there were no smartphones to make it any easier. But I stuck to it because that’s what I wanted. I began by writing what I didn’t know and still do the same. It opens door after door and there’s always something to write about.
Liberating yourself from the cage of ‘write what you know’ allows you to do more than you have been doing. If you are a writer who has so far stuck to this advice, if you have dwelt in the comfort of it without ever bothering to find what’s beyond it, here are three reasons for you to free yourself from this writing advice.
1. You get to be unlimited
What you know is limited. Well, it is a very obvious fact, because even if we have multiple degrees or doctorates in various subjects, there is always more in the world out there than what we know. Knowledge is limited to what you look for. You learn only what you seek.
If writers were to stick to writing only what they knew, literature would be one thick book of monotony. However, that is not the case. No matter how old and seasoned this advice is, it sure has not been followed much. Here’s what one of the best geniuses the world has ever seen said about knowledge and imagination:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
— Albert Einstein
Without imagination, without envisaging what is going on beyond what you know, without exploring lives that you might never know, you cannot produce a work that breaks monotony and mediocrity.
If writers were to stick to writing only what they knew, literature would be one thick book of monotony.
2. You get to explore and know more
Not everybody can travel. But writers can. The very act of writing is exploratory and when you decide to write about a place that you have not been to, you will leave your seat at your home and transport yourself to that place. While you live with your characters, you are also living in a different world.
When you write about a career or profession that you have not pursued, you will go after all that you can find about that field so that you get the facts right. This broadens your perspectives and imagination, not just your knowledge. This enriches your writing with more variety than it would have had if you had limited yourself to writing only what you know.
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
— E. L. Doctorow
Writing unclogs your thoughts and makes you realize how much you actually know and how much you don’t. Freeing yourself from the rule of writing what you know allows you to consider better possibilities and reconsider what you have already written.
3. You get to write more
This is one thing every write would love to do — write more. I’m going to state another very obvious fact here. The more you explore, the more you know. The more you know, the more you can write. If you are happy just writing only what you know without further efforts, of places you have traveled to and of things you have done, there is a whole world out there that you are missing out on and an entire universe that your readers are being refused.
When you decide to break free from writing what you know, you are signing up to find more, imagine more, explore more and eventually, write more. Deciding to write what you don’t know pushes you to learn more. When you know more, by default you will develop the urge to write more because as a writer, you are programmed to express what you know and how you feel about it.
The more you explore, the more you know. The more you know, the more you can write.
Writing what you know is staying inside your comfort zone and not venturing out to see what else the world has to offer you. It lets you feel safe and confident to an extent, but it takes away your opportunity to break cliches and monotony. In the long run, there is little that you know which your readers don’t. There won’t be anymore surprise elements in your stories. They would have figured you out by your third book.
Writing what you don’t know encompasses a voyage that makes you hunt for and gather perspectives and facts that your readers haven’t read from you. Giving them something fresh will make them come back for more. It also makes the craft more exciting and enriching to do. Technically, writing what you don’t know is one step ahead of writing what you know by the fact that you seek to know more when you leave the comfort and certainty of your home. You will develop a better sense of direction and become more conscious of your journey.
All the stories have been told already. So the best bet any new writer has in this world is to retell them in a way they have not been ever told. This novelty is the only thing that is selling books for those who have made it. Before being a writer, you would have read many books, but certainly, you don’t want to write what has already been written even when you learn the craft from those established authors.
To write a smashing book, you always need to look beyond what you have read, what you have experienced and what you have seen. You need to allow your imagination to go haywire while pertinently stringing words to present something nobody has talked about already.
In writing, the whole point is to stand out, to be unique, to have a voice that readers will find distinct, and to be you. For that, you have to defy your inner genius bombarding you with all that you know and discover what you don’t know.
Sana Rose is an award-nominated novelist, poet, physician, counseling professional, freelance writer and mom. She is based out of Kerala, India. Her debut women’s fiction novel ‘Sandcastles’ was shortlisted for ARL Literary Awards 2018 for Best Author soon after publication.