Absolute and total bull.
I’d go all the way, but I don’t want this to get blocked by spam filters in your email.
As an English teacher, I see this phrase bandied about a lot and it’s always bugged me. I’m going to take a little longer today than usual to engage in a rare Saturday rant, so sit back and enjoy. I’ll keep it brief, I promise.
‘Write what you know” is supposed to be advice for writers who are struggling to come up with what to write. Instead, I often see it used by readers and “academics” as an excuse to discount and disqualify authors that they don’t like for whatever reason.
That’s really the main thing that bugs me about the phrase. It’s used to subconsciously justify the idea that an author isn’t qualified to talk about a topic, or doesn’t have a valid perspective (whatever the heck that means) based on characteristics of the author’s life. It pops up a lot in discussions around American Literature: white people can’t write about slavery, men can’t write about women’s rights, etc. Or not that they can’t; rather, that an author’s work is somehow less valuable if he or she hasn’t personally lived through whatever the story is about.
Which, of course, is absurd.
I see students who take that advice – “write what you know” – and say, “But I don’t know about a lot of things!”
See the problem?
“Write what you know” isn’t supposed to limit what you write about. It’s supposed to ensure that when you’ve decided what you want to write about, you make sure you know your stuff.
Authors like Michael Crichton are a good example of what I’m talking about. Crichton isn’t a paleontologist. When he first had the idea for Jurassic Park, he didn’t say, “Oh … I don’t know much about that” and shelve it. He learned. He learned and we believe.
Imagine if we as DMs stuck to “write what you know.” D&D would be boring as hell. It’d just be reliving our normal life. “You tell a joke at the lunch table? Roll a Performance check.” Yawn.
Add to that the fact that we can’t actually even write a story; we can only provide a story hook and framework. The players are the main ones who decide what the story actually is. That and the ever-lovely RNG.
So don’t stick to what you know. That’s dumb. Try something weird and off the wall. Put your players in a position where you have no earthly clue what will happen next.
What you know is boring. Set the stage and write what you don’t.
Now get out there and tell a story (and if you need one to tell, check out my work on DMsGuild)!