What They Really Mean When They Say ‘Write What You Know’

I was working on an interview for our upcoming long-term blog tour for City of Hope and Ruin, and one of the questions was about the worst writing advice I’d ever received.

So I was thinking back over writing advice in general, and came to the conclusion that I didn’t think I’d ever really received any bad writing advice, just advice that didn’t apply or that I didn’t understand initially. And the age-old writing staple, Write What You Know, is one of the latter.

People tend to interpret it as something like, if you’re a banker, your main character should also be a banker. Or if you’re a woman, your main character also needs to be a woman. Or if they fight against it, it’s something like “Well, I don’t know about dragons, but neither does anyone else, hahaha!”

The thought is–if you’ve never done it, been it, seen it, how could you do it justice?

But that’s not what Write What You Know means. It’s not limiting like that. It’s not there to force you into the trappings of your own life.

What Write What You Know means is to pull things–mostly emotions–from your own life and apply them to other situations. You may never have faced down a horde of bandits, but maybe a gang of bullies cornered you once at school. Maybe you’ve never jumped off the speeding train, but there was probably something, somewhere, that terrified you. Or exhilarated you. Or both.

You can identify places in your own life which, while not as outlandish (probably, depending on genre) as what you’re writing about, are still applicable, still transferable. No one is actually expecting you not to write about dragons just because you’ve never actually seen one. They’re just expecting you to bring real emotion, real context to it, based on what you know from your own life.

Thoughts, Squiders? How’s your week been?

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6 responses to this post.

  1. You beat me to it. I was going to make a similar post myself. I get a bit disappointed at all the first novels with writers as main characters. The idea is to bring a slice of real life into your fiction, not write about your own life. Cooking oil splatters and burns, use that, hell weaponize it. Don’t have a character whose last three books were best sellers, unless there is a damned good reason. It’s the little things.

    Reply

    • Yeah, I’ve noticed a trend of main characters as writers as well. I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of that myself in the past (though not because I was a writer, but that the fantastical elements in the book were directly based on storytelling). And if not writers, librarians, or people who work in book stores. Just where a lot of people feel comfortable, I suppose.

      Reply

  2. This is a really good way of explaining it. It’s a trap a lot of aspiring writers fall into. I find the best books are ones that make me experience emotions or events which are similar to ones in my own life; they seem much more authentic, because you can relate. Similarly, when writing anything, it should be relatable and inspired by your own life experiences – whatever they may be. 😊

    Reply

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