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  • Writer's pictureRachel Paige

Writing the Truth

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the well-known writing rule "write what you know" and said I don't necessarily agree with it. Here's why.

Writing what you know tells writers that they should write about topics, people, or events they have personal experience with and can therefore write correctly. While that isn't entirely what the rule means, it tells writers that they can't write a character who lives next door to a cornfield in Iowa when they've only lived in New York City. It tells female writers they can't have male narrators and vice versa. It tells people they can't write from the POV of a dog.

But why would any of that be true? No human has ever been a dog. No human really knows what it would be like to be a dog, but there's books written from the POV of a dog. If everyone stuck to writing what they knew, so many books would never exist.

However, there is some truth to this rule. Let's look at some variations of the rule,

Write you know emotionally. You should be able to relate to the events and characters of the story even if you've never been in those experiences yourself. For example, in Chaos in G Major, two of my characters have their lives torn apart by a car accident and have to move in the first chapter. I've never had that happen to me. But I have moved. I know what that feels like. I can relate to that part and magnify my emotions until they fit my characters' situation.

Write what you can find out. You shouldn't write about cultures you aren't part of without doing your research. You shouldn't write about health conditions you know nothing about. You need to be careful with sensitive topics. Start with Google, then find real people to talk to, either in person or people online. You need to make sure that any sensitive issue you're handing is done with care.

Write what you know to be true. When you sit down to write a novel or short story, there is a truth about the world you are trying to show. Through your characters and story, you are telling something you know to be true. The events may not be true, but what they reveal about human nature might be. What deep truth about the world do you have insight on? Write that. It's what you know.

Write what you know the world needs. This relates to the last one. There's a line in The Help by Kathryn Stockett in which a character is told to "write about what disturbs you, especially if it bothers no one else." Look back to the previous point. What deep truth do you know you need to speak about? What do you have a burning to make people see? Find that truth and see if it's already been done the same way you want to. If not, it's all yours.

Don't write your life experience unless you're writing a memoir or autobiography. Don't only write things that have happened to your friends or people around you. Write the emotions you know and stretch them into emotions you can understand. Write what you've researched and learned. Write what is true. Write the truth the world needs to see.

And if you need to do that from the POV of a dog, go right ahead.


Have you heard to "write what you know" before? What did you think of the rule?

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