Write What You Know

I have been scouring my brain for things that I know well enough to write about, and it’s not a long list. I’ve lived only 27 years, and those 27 years haven’t been filled with much adventure or excitement.

But isn’t the whole point of writing to create your own world that you don’t necessarily know anything about before you enter it? Writing isn’t always about giving your readers advice or relaying a personal experience you’ve had… sometimes it’s about wanting to tell yourself a different story and go somewhere you’ve never gone. And if you’re interested in telling this story, chances are, someone else will also be interested in hearing it.

“Write what you know” is sometimes very good advice because it can prevent a young writer from becoming overwhelmed by the sheer possibility of the blank page. This advice can also be limiting. If everyone wrote about only what they knew and had directly experienced in the real world, Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and millions of other fantasy universes wouldn’t exist.

“Write what you know” isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. There is a lot more to what you know than just your objective daily experiences and the things that happen to you. Part of writing is sharing subjective emotions, which everyone knows about because they are part of the human experience. These things are supposedly universal, but nobody experiences sadness quite like you do, and nobody falls in love quite like you do. This kind of universal experience is what really brings those fantasy worlds to life and makes their characters memorable.

So perhaps “write to discover” is better advice.

5 thoughts on “Write What You Know

  1. If I was ever going to teach a class in writing (which I’ve never had a moment’s desire to do, even apart from my complete lack of qualifications), I might take a selected students aside and whisper to them to write what they know.

    For others, it would be a waste of time, and for some it would be the worst advice ever.

    There were people in the writing classes I took in college whose idea of short story was, “What I did last Tuesday,” with the names (maybe) changed. For them, I’d give them a slap upside the head and the advice: “You’re a damn writer! Make some sh!t up!” 🙂

    Write to discover — that’s good advice. After all, I’ve never (knowingly) met a mass murderer or an internationally famous amateur detective, but I’ve been writing about them for the last 45 years anyway.


  2. I tend to write for the same reasons Flannery O’Connor did: To discover what I know.

    Turns out I don’t know much, and that’s ok.

    Merry Christmas Maggie, and a Blessed New Year to you, too. May you continue to write madly.


  3. I agree that writing what you know doesn’t have to be about your actual experiences, but about being human. Even in a fantasy world, you still need elements of realism from your own life and surroundings to make it feel real, like our own world through a crazy looking glass. Some people just want to take it too literally, I guess.


    1. Yep! That’s part of the magic of writing. Add human experience to the most bizarre world, and you get something that’s still relatable.


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