“Write what you know”

by look i have opinions

This has always been one of the more baffling pieces of traditional advice. Who is it aimed at? Who could possibly benefit from it? I can only think of two possibilities.

  1. A writer who insists on tackling subject matter they can’t handle. Like maybe they’re imitating spy novels, but they don’t know how to make the plots believable or generate suspense or imbue their badass characters with any depth. Or they’re trying to write Serious Drama, but their portrayals of murder and grief and PTSD ring false. “Write what you know” would be okay advice for that writer, a reminder that their own experience is valid and worth telling stories about, and that too much ambition can undermine a good project.
  2. Somebody who claims they can’t think of anything to write. At least it would force them to write something. Though probably not something readable.

I don’t understand why people say “Write what you know” to anyone besides these two specific types of people. I’ve seen advice-givers try to justify and expand it (“Write what you know emotionally“; “Don’t write without doing the research”), but wow. Just scrap it and start over.