Why “Write What You Know” is Meaningless Advice For Content Creators

Joel Eisenberg

If you take the words literally, that is.

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Rod Serling, promotional image for “The Twilight Zone”

Introduction

In the interest of clarity, “content creators” for this purpose is an umbrella term for anyone who writes, regardless of fiction or nonfiction, within any specific field.

Before we get started in earnest, you may want to check out some expert advice on the matter here.

I promise you will not be wasting your time.

Rod Serling inspires me more than any writer, living or dead. He passed away at 50 years old in 1975, but what a legacy he left.

Aside from “The Twilight Zone,” Rod wrote several drafts of 1968’s “Planet of the Apes,” the pioneering “Patterns” for “Kraft Television Theatre,” and one of my favorite live productions ever, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for “Playhouse 90.”

Regarding perhaps his greatest achievement, however …

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I included the entirety of opening narrations for the original “The Twilight Zone” series, courtesy of WikiQuote, for reason. Simply, neither Rod nor anyone as far as I know has been anywhere near “another dimension” in all its myriad forms ... and/or at least has been able to return and tell the tale.

I expect some will come back at that comment and mention experiencing heaven or an equivalent during a near-death experience. I’m not sold any sincere response — as opposed to an attention-getting response — is based on more than a physiological reaction, and I’ll leave it there.

But … if one does sincerely experience something unlike anything they have ever experienced, due to trauma as an example, then if they write about it they are writing what they know.

Right?

Sure. Though here’s the rub: Most anything one is capable of writing can be legitimately described as something the writer knows. Perhaps the writer had a strange dream, even, and they write about that.

Doesn’t that also fit within the “write what you know” parameter?

It absolutely does. So the mistake many people make when heeding the advice is they are literal in their acceptance of it.

A Matter of Semantics

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

se·man·tics /səˈman(t)iks/noun

The branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. There are a number of branches and subbranches of semantics, including formal semantics, which studies the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication, and logical form, lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and word relations, and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning.

Read on for the rest.

The Mind’s Eye

“Write what you know” is little more than a semantics argument, in my opinion, a philosophy of creation that can be either justified or dismissed based on your perspective of its meaning.

Many of us have seen science fiction films, read comic books, and watched horror movies.

Did the creators explore these worlds on their own? Did they write from their experiences?

Did they write what they know?

No.

They wrote what they imagined, perhaps some of it based on their experience, perhaps not.

Imagination is individual and often vivid.

Conversely, how many of you have heard, “Write what you know” and have taken the expression literally?

That’s the issue. Not the comment itself.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Assuming you follow “Write what you know” literally …

  • How will writing what I know positively impact others?
  • Will readers care?
  • Will my experience translate into anything meaningful for my readers?
  • Will I eventually hit a wall?
  • Is my writing too limiting?

And so on.

Now ask yourself the same questions and add your imagination into the equation.

Chances are, your answers will slant more to the positive.

Conclusion

Write what you know … so long as the experiences on which you base your work includes your dreams and wildest personal imaginings. Resonance and reader identification is based a great deal on a content creator’s honesty, regardless of an output of fact or fiction.

Telling a writer where to find or how to source a wellspring, however, can ravage the careers of real talent if accepted as a narrowly-defined rule. The real message is, as ever, to just write and consistently work on your craft.

Having food in front of you and being told it’s there to eat is a little obvious, no? As is, staring at a blank page on a computer and getting ready to “write what you know” … or what you don’t.

It doesn’t have to be said.

Once again, just write.

As for being inspired, that’s the other half of the gig and fodder for another article.

Thank you for reading in the meantime.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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