Write what you know

I read a really interesting article in The Writer magazine about how the concept of writing what you know makes very little sense. In his article, “Write what you know—and be sorry,” Kris Saknussemm drew comparisons to Mordor and bullet ricocheting around in a shootout and asked what author’s really knew what that felt like. I think the article raised some very valid points.

This phrase  of “write what you know” is bandied about without taking the time to examine what it means. If you strictly adhere to it, you will be sorry because the scope of your story is severely impinged upon.

But I think the concept is valid in terms of emotions. If you have never had a moment of fear, can you really do the emotion justice? I think it should be: Draw on your experiences, but always leave room for the imagination.

What do you think? Should a writer stick to something they know, create something without any ties to this world, or aim for some middle ground?

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8 Responses to Write what you know

  1. Loren Chase says:

    I have always been at odds with this saying. When I was younger and I wanted to write fairy tales and stories about dragons… My teachers were always telling me to “write what I know.” I was convinced I could only write about that time my dog dragged me across the street because it was something I “knew” and “experienced.” I think writing is all about imagination. Even if you’ve experienced something you’ve still got to “re-imagine” that event or feeling and then write it down onto paper; which may never be an exact replica of the feelings you felt in that moment. Writing in itself is taking the things you know and elaborating or transforming them.

    But I’ve always loved research and being able to research the facts about a different time period, another countries government, or if birds can eat cake… really excites me. Only writing what I know would bore me to no end. I think you should write what you know, and research what you don’t, because then, you’ve got an entirely new plethora of facts to draw from.

    • Great points Loren! I think as long as the story is grounded in something (research, life experience, observations, etc.), then imagination can take it anywhere. Personally, I can’t imagine a world without Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, both of which violate the “write what you know” tenet. 🙂

  2. Gerard says:

    I say start with what you know, research what you don’t, and let your imagination complete the circle, and write it all. Many of the things authors write about are outside their personal experiences so one will have to do background research and sprinkle it all with vivid imagination. If songwriters only wrote songs about what they knew, we’d have very little to listen to.

    • Seems like you and Loren are on the same page. 🙂 I think there is something cool about an authentic voice as in I lived on a farm in Iowa and wrote about it, but there’s something even cooler about living in small town America and writing a story about life in the Sudan.

  3. Emma says:

    I fully agree with what you said, Kourtney and Loren! Only writing about things you’ve experienced yourself can be quite restrictive and boring. But I’m a firm believer that what you write needs to be plausible and coherent within itself.

    Anyways, I couldn’t have said it any better. Your motto “Draw on your experiences, but always leave room for the imagination” combined with what Loren said about a thorough research are going to be my new credo for writing 🙂

    • I think it’s really important to listen to all the advice out there on writing, but also be okay with melding the “rules” to your needs. Strictly following them can lead to disaster. I remember my early query letters were just awful because I tried to follow every piece of query advice I read. BAD IDEA! But I learned form my mistakes and I’m working on a much better one now. 🙂 Sounds like you have a great credo!

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