Everyone that writes has heard the expression “write what you know” – but is it really any good advice? During a panel at the Stockholm Writers Festival 2022, various writers discussed the pros and cons of this advice, and these are my takeaways from the panel.
Advantages of writing what you know
- It’s easier to portray things you’ve experienced, like menstrual cramps.
- Describing something you have experienced with all your senses is easier to portray than a place you have only seen in a picture.
- You already know the rules and boundaries of that world.
Disadvantages of writing what you know
- Writing about things you know does not teach you anything new.
- People from a certain place, raised in a certain culture, often have blind spots about their own culture.
- People often think that you write about things that are self-experienced and based on people you know. If you write what you know, there is a big risk that people you know will think you are writing about them.
An important lesson I learned from the panel was that you can write about what you know, but you have to be careful and straight forward with your loved ones that what you write is not about them.
Be inspired by people around you. Listen in on a conversation on the bus. Add a scen with your neighbor who always cleans the window or even the elderly couple walking hand in hand. If you want to write about things you haven’t experienced yourself, you can learn by reading, researching and asking someone who knows. If you are writing a book about a pilot, you can try to get an interview with a pilot.
Writing about things you know nothing about allows you to learn new things. But if you write about things that might be sensitive to others, you should use a “sensitivity reader”. A sensitivity reader is someone who belongs to or represents a different target group than you. That person reads the story to make sure it does not contain offensive material, misrepresentation, stereotypes or bias. Sensitive readers write down problems and often make suggestions for improvement.
We write to capture the human experience, both in fiction and non-fiction.
Panel with: Lola Akinmade Åkerström, Olivia Dade, Aliette de Bodard, Kim Golden, and Elise Valmorbida.