Amber’s Corner: The good, the bad and the ugly of ‘writing what you know’

A phrase that persists through multiple levels and styles of writing courses is the fated “write what you know.” In beginner English courses, a teacher’s main goal is to embark students on a safe and intriguing journey into a world that will be heavily focused on writing and rewriting in all subjects and in all aspects of their lives. A somewhat easy way to push students over the deep end of the writing pool is to let them focus on material with which they already have experience – aka, “write what you know.” Pushing beginner students to write about lofty topics, the type of which they had only ever overheard from their parents at the dinner table, could lead to an overwhelmed student with a disdain for all writing assignments.

In advanced English courses, a full 360-turn occurs, in which “writing what you know” is suddenly considered taboo and a sign of compositional immaturity. In upper high school and college courses, professors often urge their students to take risks and break out of their self-imposed boundaries. However, this can be a challenge for most who have grown up with the “write what you know” mentality. Change can be scary; a failing grade for most could be downright terrifying.

Yet, there is a disconnect that can occur when students make the leap from writing personal experiences to solely writing from a distanced point of view, which can at times appear cold and detached. Style preferences aside, writing without passion is as bad as not writing at all.

Don’t write “what you know.” Rather, “write what matters.” A topic fueled with genuine interest and passion will better translate onto any page.

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