Write What You (don’t) Know

A few blog posts by other writers caught my eye this week – some a little older, and others more recent – that dwelled on one of the oldest pieces of writing advice that new writers frequently get:

Write what you know…

~Some Anonymous Jerk

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard it before.  We all have – though no one will claim credit for having told it to us. 

But what does that even mean?

Those links have a thing or two to say about that – perhaps more eloquently than I will say it here.  But the short answer: not a whole heck of a lot – without a lot more context.

Let’s break it down.  What do I know?  I know about being in school.  I know about being a big brother.  I know what it’s like to sit in front of a computer for eight or nine or ten hours a day wishing it were displaying something more interesting than a spreadsheet.  I know what it’s like to pine to be a writer.  I’ve more recently started learning what it’s like to be a husband, and more recently still a father.

But in the grand scheme of things, writing what I know doesn’t leave a lot of room for gripping tales.  Most of my life has been pretty short on gripping.  For many of us writers and aspiring authors, that’s true.  Which is to say, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed on the blogs of many other writers.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my life – nor that any other writer enjoys theirs – but there’s a general lack of gripping drama and epic adventure in my day-to-day activities.

And what is it I don’t know?  Well, I don’t know how to do magic.  I don’t know what it’s like to go on a globe-trotting adventure to save the world from utter destruction.  I don’t know what it’s like to face a dark lord in mortal combat.  I don’t know what it’s like to save my true love from the clutches of an evil villain (or even from an overly smooth Don Juan).  I don’t know what it’s like to grapple with and control powerful cosmic forces.  I don’t know what it’s like to hold the balance of another person’s life in my hands.  I don’t know what it’s like to descend into the depths of depravity nor the bowels of hell.  I don’t know what it’s like living in a war zone.  I don’t know what it’s like on the battlefield.  I don’t know what it’s like to face the fury of nature.  I don’t know what it’s like to hunt down a loved one’s killer.  I don’t know what it’s like to overcome all odds to achieve my greatest desires in life (though I’m trying).  I don’t know what it’s like to meet sentient beings of another species.  I don’t know what it’s like to see things no one else has seen and explore places no one else has been.  In short, I don’t know what it’s like to experience the kind of drama and conflict that make for great stories.  There are some people who do know what some of these things are like.  Some of them are even writers.  But for the rest of us… if we stick to writing what we know, we’ve pretty much cut out all the great stories from our writing repertoires.

That is… if we stick to things we know through first hand experience.

Of course, there’s a whole world of things we can know about by reading about it.  Most of my examples above come from the speculative fiction genres – though many of them have parallels in mainstream fiction.  I can have many of these experiences in the confines of a book.

Similarly, there are topics about which I know little, but about which there is a wealth of information both on the internet or available at the local library.  Some things have to be experienced to be fully understood, but most of what we might need to “know” we can learn by educating ourselves.

And that’s what this advice really means:  “If you’re writing about something you don’t know, take the opportunity to educate yourself, because readers who do know will call you out on your ignorance if you don’t.”

In many cases, if you’re a speculative fiction writer, you’ll find that what you’re writing about are characters in a world that is wholly from your imagination.  So writing what you know means making it up.  But whenever what y0u’re writing touches on an established world – including any intersections with the real world – you’re going to have to do some research to get the details right.

Or not.  Because you can always throw caution to the wind and say to yourself “This thing about which I know little or nothing is an unimportant detail in the overall plot of what I’m writing, and I’m unconcerned about what those who know it better than I think, so I’m just going to gloss over it.”

Because ultimately what you’re writing is yours; it’s your story.  And it’s what you do know that’s going to be most important in what you write.  Like it or not, your feelings, your emotions, your memories and experiences, your outlook on life, your beliefs and your dreams, your hopes and your fears, your happy memories and your regrets – these are the things that will suffuse your writing.  That’s what you’re really writing about.  And that’s the well that you’ll need to tap into if you want to write well, and if you want to write what you know.  Good writing, true writing will always reveal something to your reader about who you are, deep down inside.

That’s true whether you’re taking your readers on an adventure in a mythical fantasy landscape, or on a journey across the universe in a starship, or to the front lines of history’s most famous battles, or to the palaces of kings and rulers, or to the intimate memories of your youth, or to a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood where one would think nothing dramatic has ever happened. 

Happy writing.

28 thoughts on “Write What You (don’t) Know

  1. Steven, what a great synopsis of Write What You (Don’t) Know. As an historical fiction writer (with a science fiction twist), I found that old writing saw to be ludicrous. It was a great pleasure to come across your blog and read this!

    I’m looking forward to reading through your blog, bit by bit.

    ~ McKenna

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m the same way: as a fantasy and science fiction writer, the phrase “Write what you know” doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Taken literally, that advice kind of boils down to saying that the only thing writers can legitimately write is a memoire. I’d been thinking about the problem with that advice already when I happened across the linked blog posts, and then I knew I should offer my own take on it as well. I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog as well…

  2. This is a good post especially as a fantasy writer. “Write what you know” is too simplistic. What do we know anyway? There are emotional truths: what heartbreak feels like, the joy of laughing with friends, sadness when dealing with the loss of a loved one. There are basic experiences: what the wind feels like on a hot day, or the texture of sand under bare feet, or cutting a finger on a piece of paper. These little truths help ground a story, no matter what else is happening on the larger scale.

    Maybe I’ve never been in a sword fight, but I know how I’d react in one, and that is be completely scared out of my mind! What I could bring to the scene? What it feels like to be desperately out of my depth, and frightened.

    I think “write honestly” is a better rule to follow. 🙂

    • Absolutely. Emotional truths and basic experiences are virtually universal. That’s what can give our tale a real sense of emotional depth and verisimilitude. I think “write honestly” is far more useful and more “honest” advice. For one thing, it doesn’t falsely suggest that we limit ourselves to writing about things with which we have personal experience. Insofar as “write honestly” may not be entirely clear, it invites exploration of its meaning and introspection on the part of the writer, whereas “write what you know” has the veneer of being clear when in reality it isn’t.

      • Wait, are you telling me honestly and truly that you’ve never seen “Princess Bride”? Or are you pulling my leg? That’s kind of one of the prerequisites for being a fantasy nerd. Then again, I am ashamed to admit, I’ve never seen Monty Python’s Holy Grail, despite wanting to have watched it… so I suppose I’ve no place to talk…

      • He he, yes, I’ve never seen PB. 🙂 Just heard that quote before though. And I’ve never seen the Holy Grail either…not a nerd I guess, just informed about random things…

      • But…. but… but only nerds are allowed to write science fiction and fantasy. 😉 Seriously though, Princess Bride is a classic, and you won’t regret taking a couple hours to give it a watch. (For that matter, the book was a pretty fun read, too.)

      • Y’know, I kinda am a nerd, come to think about it (Even though I have not watched Princess Bride). I’ve been called a nerd before. I wear green socks (almost) everywhere. I can type a million words a minute. I like coke-bottle glasses. What is the definition of a nerd? Someone should write a blog post about that someday…

    • Incontheivable! 🙂

      I think most advice, when boiled down to one sentence, loses its potency, since it loses context and nuance of meaning and all those fun things.

      I think too many speculative fiction writers throw this rule out the window, too often without giving it further thought. (Unlike what you’re doing here!) I’ve read so many stories that know a lot about the world (real or imagined), how it works, how species interact, etc. Yet they don’t seem to know how people interact on a personal level, or how our flaws, as well as our strengths, motivate us to actions. These stories, while they can be lots of fun at the time, don’t have a lot of staying power. There’s one in particular I can think of that showed that the author clearly knew lots about how certain aspects of space travel might work, but had never even stopped to consider how a person in a particular situation might feel. It was so bland, I had to stop reading! It makes me wonder if the author has just had a terribly boring life, or if they don’t understand their own emotions or what. 😐

      I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about writing and truth and how they intersect. I find that the stories that I write that most excite me are the ones that, when I finally put my finger on the conflict, I can say “Yes, I know what that feels like. I know what it’s like to feel responsible for everything. I know what it’s like to feel guilty for something I couldn’t have changed. I know what it’s like to question whether I’m just being used or it’s a genuine friendship.” The stories where I tap into my own internal conflicts are the strongest. The generalities of why a character feels guilty or responsible or lacks trust are things I don’t necessarily need to have first-hand experience with, but getting to that internal emotional quality that I know is really important for me.

      Of course, that’s also the hardest, scariest part to write. That’s bared soul on the page time. Some days it’s easier not to do that, of course! 🙂 But for me, that’s in a lot of ways what “Write what you know” means for me.

      Anyway, your mileage may vary, of course. This is just where I am in my own process and ponderings. 😀 Hmm, I may think about this more and make my own blog post. Thanks for getting my juices flowing!

      • I think you’re right on the money. What flows onto the page, what drives conflict and the emotional depth of the character, is our own private lives writ large. I may not have experienced those amazing experiences I mentioned, but I’ve experienced little things that are like small reflections of that greater truth – my experiences and my emotions are comparable, but muted. Amplified onto the page, they’ll ring true. And I agree… it’s not easy to go to the scary emotional places where we have to bare our souls and write our truths… but if we want to connect with readers I think it’s the best way.

  3. I like what TS said in her comment, which is what I think it boils down to. Write what you know…but not what you’ve experienced.

    For instance, what if I asked you to write about the color verf and what it means to you? What kinds of emotions does verf arouse? How about where it’s most commonly used? Well duh, you cannot write about it because you don’t know what it is, let alone have ever SEEN it, ever KNEW it even existed! (BTW, along those lines, there are colors we can’t see…intriguing, no? :D)

    So we write things that are, in their ultimate nature, things we know about. But the combination of this knowledge differs. I’ve written a story set in an ice age. I’ve never been in an ice age. But I know what snow is like. And I can imagine what it would be like to have snow ALLLLL the time. So by combining two things I know: Snow and normality, I can come up with a new recipe.

    I guess that’s what writing is. New recipes. We are cooks. Cool. 🙂

      • Since when are we prestigious though? I think we’re cooks while we’re unpublished (or “Undiscovered” as you put it), then when we finally land our first book deals, we become “Chefs.” 🙂 It’d be nice to become a Gordon Ramsey…

      • 😛 Gordon Ramsey seems like a good chef, maybe, but he’s a little loose with the tongue (I mean… a little loose with the foul mouth). I’d rather go with someone who’s a little more circumspect. I kind of like Emeril. Also, my brother-in-law is a chef…

      • I thought of that too…I wouldn’t want to be as foul as GR, although I did eat at one of his restaurants once. If my memory serves me correctly, a light lunch for two cost $60. Eesh. Catch me doing THAT again. :0 (And it was okay, but not spectacular)

  4. I’ve been writing a number of drabbles lately and one of the things that I’m finding interesting is how much you can get someone to image the right image with a few careful words. I think this applies in many cases to write-what-you-know. If you are writing about what you “know” [1], you will more likely find that succinct little point that manages to capture the aspects that make the world tick.

    [1] I feel that know means first-hand experience, reading, or thinking. The latter is an important aspect in much Fantasy & Science Fiction.

    • I believe you’re right that “to know” means so much more than direct experience. And I agree that incorporating those elements that rely on what you “know” are key to infusing a story with that special something that makes a reader feel like they’re really there.

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  8. Oh, I agree. A silly rule. I wrote somewhere recently about all the great writing that we wouldn’t have if people had followed that rule literally. No F/SF, obviously. Most mysteries (few mystery writers have investigated a murder and even fewer have committed one). No Shakespeare. No Lolita. No Ulysses (that one is borderline, I admit). No Alice in Wonderland.No Utopia. Etc. Etc. I wrote about this once (with almost the same title :-): http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2407. There’s a link at the end to an older post about the same subject.

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