Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Misunderstanding of Write What You Know

By Harrison Demchick, @HDemchick

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Some writing advice has been around a long, long time, and write what you know is one of them. Harrison Demchick returns to the lecture hall today to share thoughts on how to make write what ypu know work for you.

Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012), and short stories “Magicland” and “The Bead” appear, respectively, in literary magazines Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism (January 2019) and The Hunger (Winter 2019). He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally.

Take it away Harrison...

Short of the ubiquitous show, don’t tell, there may be no better known writing aphorism than write what you know. You read it on blogs and in books, and you hear it spoken by professors in college classrooms—or maybe book editors like me.

But take care. Write what you know may not mean what you think it means.

Here’s the thing: No one knows quite where this expression came from. It seems to have been around forever—and there’s a danger in that. Over time, a flexible guideline specific to a particular circumstance can harden into a rule so rigid it’s no longer useful. And that, perhaps, is how the idea of writing what you know has developed into something frequently problematic and, in my view, wildly misinterpreted.

So let’s take some time to consider what write what you know means, what it doesn’t mean, and how it actually applies to your writing.

What Do You Know?

The general interpretation of write what you know is to draw from your personal experience. Are you a doctor? Write about being a doctor. Did you have a falling out with your best friend over a woman? Write about having a falling out with your best friend over a woman. Basically, life is a series of potential stories, and that should be the basis of your writing because your reality is what you know.

But what if J. R. R. Tolkien had written only what he knew? Tolkien was a college professor whose prior work history included a stint at The Oxford English Dictionary researching words that began with the letter “W.” Would we prefer that to the adventures of Frodo in Middle-Earth in the Lord of the Rings books? J. K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Absolutely there’s a harrowing literary novel to be written from that sort of experience, but should she have chosen that over the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

If you want to write a book but are struggling to find a story, then absolutely, write what you know can be very useful advice. Reality can be fantastic inspiration. But it’s important not to let one potential source of inspiration become, instead, a restriction.

(Here's more on What “Write What You Know” Really Means)

Write What You Don’t Know

The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series are both examples of genre fiction. There’s a reason for that.

One of the most significant issues with the expression write what you know is our tendency to interpret it as don’t write what you don’t know. If that were truly a rule to follow, then we wouldn’t have most genre fiction at all. After all, no one really knows wizardry or fantasy worlds, or spaceships for that matter. Thrillers may be more grounded in reality, but usually not the reality of the writers who write them. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko weren’t super-powered crime-fighters themselves when they created Spider-Man. And some horror can be based in reality, but probably not Stephen King’s It or anything having to do with werewolves or vampires.

That may not be an issue for those who regard grounded literary fiction as superior to other genres—this, too, is an attitude sometimes conveyed by write what you know—but great writing can, should, and does exist in all genres. Fiction is extraordinarily diverse. There are infinite kinds of stories to tell. And if writers couldn’t write what they don’t know, there would be so many great stories we’d never have a chance to read.

Write What You Feel

So how should we interpret the concept of writing what you know?

Well, consider this: Tolkien may not have known what it is to be a hobbit carrying a magical ring, but maybe he knew the feeling of bearing a seemingly impossible weight on his shoulders. Rowling never attended a school for wizards, but maybe she knew about feeling isolated and ostracized.

In other words, we may not share the lives of our characters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make an emotional connection with them. After all, human experience is to a great extent universal. We all know sadness, joy, anger, and helplessness. We’ve all experienced moments of conflict and failure. If you can draw upon that while writing your space opera set on the third moon of Neptune, then I’d argue you’re still writing what you know.

In other words, it’s not a restriction. It’s a way to bring your world to life.

Write What You Can Know

But there’s also a genuine caution in write what you know. You don’t need to be a fighter pilot to write an epic World War II adventure. But if you’re going to do so, you should probably take the time to learn something about planes. If you don’t know the difference between a fuselage and a slat, readers aren’t going to believe in the authenticity of your work.

When we write stories grounded more in reality—just not our own reality—we’re expected to write with a certain amount of expertise. Fortunately, expertise isn’t set in stone. You may not know about airplanes, but between libraries, the internet, and other experts who may be willing to talk with you, you can certainly learn.

With that said, there’s cause for caution when it comes to conveying the experience of cultures, races, orientations, etc. other than your own. The question of whether you should or should not write such stories to begin with is an open debate, but many authors who choose to do so use “sensitivity readers”—that is, beta readers who belong to the other group in question—to make sure they get it right.

Getting it right is the goal whether we’re talking about cultures, countries, timelines, or jobs. Research plus imagination is a potent combination. You need both to turn an unfamiliar world into a credible story.

Write What You Want

But fundamentally, the most important consideration of all is that a writer should write basically whatever they want.

After all, that’s the point. We don’t craft stories to restrict ourselves. We craft stories to create, freely. The most damaging misinterpretation of write what you know is the one that makes you feel like you shouldn’t be doing that.

So imagine what you choose. Research what you need to. Write what you feel. And create something spectacular.


  1. If you don't know what you want to write about you need to research it - then run the relevant passages past someone how does know. I fall off my chair laughing at some of the bloopers in historical novels where the author knows nothing about horses and has failed to ask someone who does whether what they have written is correct.

    Lindsey Russell

    1. So true. If you're writing anything that relies on "real" details and situations that require accuracy, do the research. Readers will notice, and you'll get emails!