What does this mean: write what you know?

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Almost every writer who is looking for advice and guidance at some point comes across this old bit of wisdom: write what you know. But what does that saying mean? What is it telling writers to do? And where did it originate? I would really like to know. If any of you reading this have any opinions or information about this maxim, please offer it.

Since all writing emerges from each writer, it seems self-evident that something of what we know goes into the writing. Does it mean, however, that we should only write about that with which we are very familiar? That approach is extremely limiting and would eliminate all speculative fiction of any kind, including science fiction, fantasy, gothic, horror, and post-apocalyptic since those are worlds that we, as writers, are creating.

It also seems that if we take the saying literally that it would inhibit imagination, which I would argue is the most essential characteristic for writers. We need to be able to see and create worlds that do not exist, even in the most realistic of literary fiction.

So, again, I am left with the question of what does this adage mean, and is it useful for writers?

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14 thoughts on “What does this mean: write what you know?

  1. Dear Prof. French!
    I wish I had you as my teacher in school. Your writing is very clear and interesting and your students should appreciate the work you do and love of words. Barbara Pursner Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

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  2. I hear echoes of your title from the past…this was also told to me early in my writing career. And I get it. First of all, I take it to mean know yourself…”I am spiritual; I am curious about the world and the people around me,” etc, etc., and write about what you are passionate about, what moves you. Then your writing comes from the heart. Secondly, I believe anyone can write superficially about any subject…just do the research. But to make it your own story, to make it real and appealing, a writer needs to experience life. It doesn’t mean you have to be a survivor of cancer to write about it, but you need to dig into the emotions of people who have experienced cancer, maybe lost a child or partner to cancer, Or perhaps volunteer at the cancer clinic to find out what it’s all about.

    BTW…you choose very interesting topics to write about…you are obviously passionate about writing!

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  3. Write what you know — but what you know tomorrow may be more than what you know today. It really is possible, through research and experience (etc.), to expand one’s knowledge. I like “write what you know.” It says “what you know is important, so start there.” By writing about your small corner of the world, you’re writing about the whole world. I have no idea where “write what you know” came from. It can be a prison or it can be a liberation. Our choice!

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  4. I have written a similar post and love the concept. We write and we give a little of ourselves, knowledge or experience. To write freely, we must dream and create inspiration from our own imagination and muse. Creativity is infinite 🙂

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  5. The second book I just self published is all Biblical settings and characters. Having studied the Bible from before I could read, I thought I knew everything I needed. Hoo boy, was I wrong! In order to make the stories as real as possible, I discovered I wanted to know real details, like what were the buildings like? (I found my assumptions were completely wrong.) I wanted to know what the countryside looked like, what the distances were between locations, what the weather was like. Just when I was despairing of finding everything I needed to know before I lost my mind (I live in a rural area and getting to a library was difficult and I hate downloading info from the net and trying to look at it while I’m writing), I was helping clear out long stored general stuff from our church’s office and ran across two very old books that contained not only the information I needed, but pictures, maps, commentaries, and all around everything I had been looking for. I asked if I could borrow them, and was told to keep them, because they were just taking up space and nobody had looked at them for decades. Then, just recently, I scored a very inexpensive book about the politics of the region and time and customs of the inhabitants. Since my life has been somewhat restricted to work and sleep for decades, I figure I have a lot of researching ahead in my life, but it certainly looks interesting!

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  6. Writing what you know does limit you and sounds like you don’t have enough brains to look things up or interview others to get an understanding. I do believe when you have personal first-hand experience it makes the writing more real. If you have to look it up, the scene often comes across as stilted. I’ve done a lot of things in my lifetime, but probably have not done twice as many–so my characters will never go skiing, down a mine shaft, or parachuting to name a few. I still think I could describe one of those scenes without having read like I didn’t know what I was talking about, partly because I’ve read stories about others doing them.

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  7. Reading over this again reminded me of what I joked when someone at work remarked on how confident I sounded while teaching a class of coworkers a complicated subject. “I can teach anything whether I know about it or not. In fact, the less I know the better so I can just make it up as I go along.” The funny thing was, the government took me seriously. I spent a decade traveling the country writing training material and teaching stuff I didn’t know, and was the sole author of training materials and procedures of an extremely complex subject affecting millions of people. I don’t think I was the only person who knew the subject, but I was the only person either willing or able to explain the steps needed to work those cases. It’s hard to tell sometimes. I thought writing fiction would be easier, but it definitely isn’t.

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  8. I think Ursula K. Le Guin handled the question best. In her essay “Talking About Writing” (1979), she states: “I was told, at extremely regular intervals, ‘You should try to write about things you know about.’ And I would say, But I do; I know about Orion, and dragons, and imaginary countries. Who do you think knows about my own imaginary countries, if I don’t?”

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