Why You Should Write What You Don’t Know

Cartoon Writer

Write what you know.

You’ve probably heard that phrase before. It’s pretty common advice for writers, especially those who are just getting started, and I suppose it’s not bad. Starting somewhere familiar makes a lot of sense.

That being said, oftentimes you’ll do some of your best writing when you write what you don’t know.

In my case, if I only wrote what I knew, I’d have a pretty limited repertoire. All my characters would have roughly the same life experiences, the same interests, the same opinions. If I only wrote what I knew, I might be able to write book. If that.

Furthermore, what if I decided to write a story in which the world is entirely composed of cats? If I only wrote what I know, I wouldn’t even be able to write this story, because there’s no such thing as Catworld. (Though there totally should be.)

Okay, I realize I’m being a bit literal here, but I think the point is valid: there are going to be a lot of parts of your writing which you don’t know all that well. And that’s a good thing!

Now that’s not to say that you shouldn’t do any research. No matter what your story is about, you should research it. In the above example, for example, I could research feline behavior, speak to a vet, or pretend to be a cat for a few hours. This research will give me some good details for my story.

Research helps pretty much every book, even those you might not guess. Take The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Though Middle-Earth is an alternate world, it’s heavily based in legends and mythology. Creatures like trolls, elves, dwarves, goblins—these have all appeared in various mythologies over the course of human history. In fact, few of Tolkien’s creatures are completely original.

Still, before Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, none of this territory had been thoroughly explored in literature. Therefore, if Tolkien had only written what he knew, would he ever have tried creating his own languages? What about his fictional histories? If he had only written what he knew, how would he come up with everyone’s favorite weirdo, Tom Bombadil?

If you’re familiar with everything you write, then you might not be pushing yourself enough. Try writing on subjects you know nothing about. Try exploring territory which you’ve never seen before. This will help you progress as a writer, and it will make things feel a little more fresh.

This idea extends beyond genre, even. If you write primarily fantasy, try writing some creative nonfiction. Try writing a straight romance (no vampires, please and thank you). Try writing in a time period you know little about.

Always do your research, but do your best to write about what you don’t know. See what happens!

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