An Alternative to “Write What You Know”

The advice “write what you know” is ubiquitous to the point of being cliche. It is also so frequently misunderstood, to the point that most of the writing out there on writing what you know is clarifying what that means. No, it doesn’t mean every book has to be an autobiography, yes you can imagine, yes you can research, but hang on, there are limits to what research can help you with and, well, it’s just complicated, see? Despite this, it keeps being passed around because it touches on an important truth; its easier to write well when you know something about the subject. The trouble with “write what you know” is that it gives a rule when what is really needed is guidance through a process.

Several years ago, I was studying to become an American Sign Language interpreter. The head of the program liked to impress on us the importance of extra-linguistic knowledge. She liked to abbreviate this to elk. If you ever found yourself recognizing all the words you were hearing, but still struggling to understand because you knew nothing about the topic, your elk was dead, and so, most likely, was your translation.

To understand how this works, think of a topic you know nothing about. It doesn’t matter what it is; oncology, beekeeping, quantum mechanics, the rules of hockey. Imagine you have to eavesdrop on a conversation on that topic, in English, then rephrase and explain it to somebody else, still in English. Even without a language gap, odds are you can’t do it. Maybe some information would come through correctly, but much of it would be forgotten and the rest misunderstood.

However, just as writers are sometimes fascinated by a story that requires knowledge they don’t have, interpreters sometimes go through spells where they need money, and jobs where they are perfect experts in every topic are hard to come by. We were taught to consider three things; the extent of our elk, the gap between that and the elk required for an assignment, and the what would happen if we messed up. For example, I don’t know much about economics, but I do know more than the average person about medicine, due to a morbid curiosity and a nurse for a mother. Does that mean I could have accepted all assignments that involve doctor’s appointments and none for economics classes? Absolutely not. Even with my medical geekery, I would have needed specialized training for hospital interpretation before taking on those assignments. The stakes, if I mistranslated a symptom or a doctor’s instructions, would be just too high. An advanced economics class for a business major would also be a bad choice, but how about a 101 class? Interpreters, like writers, can research before they start working, and teachers are often happy to give them copies of the syllabus. This combined with the low difficulty level of the class would mean I could revive my elk enough to interpret.

Another thing we learned was how to handle situations where our elk failed us unexpectedly. Conversations are organic, unpredictable things. You can accept a job translating a PTA meeting, and suddenly the discussion segues into something about a trip to New Zealand, and people are mentioning jungles but also penguins and you thought a kiwi was either a fruit or a New Zealander but apparently it’s also something that eats rubber off of cars? In these situations we learned to use contextual clues to figure things out on the fly, and if necessary also pause the conversation to get clarification from the clients.

I’ve found that all of the elk guidelines have writerly equivalents.

1. If you want to write about something you don’t know much about, consider how much you would need to know in order to make it plausible. Just as a 101 class is easier to translate with limited elk, writing an unfamiliar environment from the eyes of a newcomer is easier than getting into the head of an expert.

2. The consequences of some errors in research are bigger than others. In writing fiction, factual errors are usually forgiven unless they are common knowledge, they occur in a genre where accuracy is expected (i.e. hard science fiction) or the resolution of the plot hinges on them. What is more dangerous to a story is a characterization error. Being the millionth fantasy author to forget that horses are animals who need food and sleep won’t hurt your readership. However, if being a horse expert is an important part of your protagonist’s backstory, but they treat their own animal like a gasless motorcycle, that will stand out. It very well might break your story.

3. Little things you know nothing about can and will pop up. This is a sign that your story is flowing organically, which is good. So long as you understand the main topics of your story, you can do spot research as you go; it’s better than feeling chained to only writing thinly disguised autobiographies.

I have two more points before I close out the topic. First, elk can come from anywhere. It includes your experiences, what you studied in school, experiences your friends have told to you, the cool article you read last week, et cetera. As a result, you can often find you have elk for topics you thought you were ignorant about. Let’s say you’re a male author and nervous about writing female characters. Odds are you know more than you think. To begin with, you are a person. By now you should know a lot about being a person. Probably you know a lot about being a particular type of person, like a shy person or a brave person or a person who collects insects. Also, you probably know about the way people in your culture have different expectations for men and women. You know what a gender role is. So, imagine being a person who is shy and collects insects and lives with female gender roles. There you go; female character.

Second, elk is not a static thing. It evolves and expands throughout your life. If a topic is consistently interesting to you, but you feel your elk is too sickly, make it an ongoing research project until you are ready to write about it.

In short, don’t worry about writing what you know. Learn, and play around with what you have learned, until a good story happens.

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