The Myth of “Write What You Know”

This post is primarily for less experienced writers who feel restricted by advice such as “write what you know”. This is one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers. On the surface, it seems like a fairly logical and innocuous suggestion, but at the same time it can be restrictive. The problem doesn’t quite lie with the advice, but in the way many writers interpret it. A writer just starting out might have some grand ideas (mine were so ridiculously grand that I’m still trying to make them work four years later), but be put off by their lack of knowledge on a particular subject.

To use me as an example, my baby project, Coldfire, is a mess of former drug addicts, bureaucracy, possibly overused weapons and various random places to which I have never been. I don’t know much of anything on these subjects. If I had taken the “write what you know” advice literally, I would have just dumped the idea a long time ago and moved onto writing about white middle-class teenage girls in Australian suburbia. Yawn.

Here’s a better idea: instead of constraining yourself to a limited spectrum of experience, research what you don’t know. Hell, if you’re a speculative fiction (supernatural/horror/science fiction/fantasy/dystopian/etc.) writer, you can make some of it up. As many writers before me have said, advice should not be restrictive. If you feel limited by a specific piece of advice, toss it and find something better to put in its place.

In the next post, I will cover another interpretation of “write what you know”.

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7 thoughts on “The Myth of “Write What You Know”

  1. Good advice, Ann Elise. I think every great adage holds an opposite truth within it somewhere. I’ve been writing a historical novel whose roots began in some family stories – which I’ve fictionalized beyond recognition. I knew the stories well, but didn’t know a lot of the history of the countries from which my immigrant ancestors came, nor do I know what it felt like to live in America before I was born. So I write what I know, research what I don’t, and imagine the rest. What else can I do without a time machine? Fiction is not reality, however as writers we can only fill our stories with what’s in our heads, so in a way we’re always writing what we know.

    • Sorry about the comment moderation. I deleted one of your comments since they said the same thing.

      The funny thing about history is how little we actually know. We might know the basics, but there is always going to be something beyond our grasp unless, as you said, we get a time machine. Your tactics seem pretty sound to me :)

      • Oops, I must have accidentally hit the “post comment” button twice – I didn’t mean to comment twice Too bad I can’t jump in the aforementioned time machine and just hit the button once. :)

  2. The gift of Wikipedia for the win!

    I heard a good interpretation of “write what you know” the other day. The suggestion was, “If you know you write a kick-ass romance, write romance. Don’t force yourself to write a war epic.” Part of “writing what you know” is knowing what you’re good at.

    Of course, there’s a balance to strike between writing what you know and trying something new. I’ve struck out of my usual comfort zone and had some great luck in the past. But when I break new ground I always try to bring in things I’m good at (romance, chase scenes, fantasy creatures).

    Looking forward to your next post on this subject.

    • That’s another good interpretation, as long as writers don’t take it to mean they should never branch out. My first stories always contained supernatural elements but I’ve since branched out to write a few straight contemp YA short stories. It’s not my favourite genre, but it’s a nice thing to attempt every once in a while :)

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