Write What You Understand

The rule “write what you know” is so old that it’s lost its meaning. So much so, that I see it bandied about in articles and commentary by authors all over the place. On the one hand, it’s an encouragement to new writers to slow down, do research, and work at writing stories that ring true. On the other, it’s a limitation on authors’ imaginations. At least, that’s what writers, like Lionel Shriver, who don’t like that particular admonition say. I don’t buy this second argument at all. Writers come up with impossible things all the time. They produce great novels about necromancers in space and time travelers who try to stop the Battle of Culloden and two-headed alien presidents and all kinds of things.

Fernand Toussaint

So, because I’m annoyed enough at seeing this trite phrase misused, I want to propose an update. Instead of “write what you know,” I want writers to “write what they understand.” I realize that this sounds less strict than “write what you know.” But here’s the catch: understanding something is a stronger requirement than just knowing something. For example, I can know the dates, places, and events of the Holocaust, but I know that I could never put in the emotional work to really understand the experience of a Holocaust victim or survivor. To understand something, I think, means exercising empathy to the extent that authors can create genuine authenticity with their characters. It means doing a lot of research about a full historical context. It also means using beta readers to identify and remove false notes.

Understanding means humility, honesty, and respect. (You see why I think this is so hard?) I’ve put down books in the past that used certain tropes, events, or characters in such a cursory fashion that they actually make me a little angry. I get irritated by authors who don’t respect their subjects and settings enough to do them justice. On top of that, books like Beloved or The Round House are so good that they make books that lack any kind of emotional depth or nuance look like set dressing. They’re thin, and I don’t want thin books when there are such amazing novels out there in the world. Truly understanding a possible character’s world inevitably leads to rich reading experiences.

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