13 October 2009

Don't Just Write What You Know

by Kendra Redman

As a writer you will often be told to ‘write what you know.’  This is the wrong advice.  I know; I was told this myself too many times.  Writing only what you know can be limiting for a lot of writers.  How many of us have lived the kind of life people will pay to read?  There are exceptions of course.  Some people have lived lives of terrible trauma and dysfunction and are able to take those experiences and cathartically release them into the pages of a novel.  In many cases, these writers didn’t plan to become a writer, and then cast about for what to write about, they became a writer because they had to in order to liberate their demons.  Augusten Borroughs said in an interview,  "My mother was a writer. I just associated writing with mental illness and unhappiness and poverty. But I always wrote because it was efficient. It was a way to remove the steam and the pressure. I can't imagine my life if I hadn't written. I wouldn't be functional."

So what if you are luckier in your life?  You don’t have the rich soil of trauma from which to birth your short story, novel or autobiography.  How do you write ‘what you know’?  One way is to live a life.  What I mean by living your life is to really experience your life.   Most people hurtle through their life without noticing much.  Close your eyes.  Now describe out loud the day you had yesterday.  How did you do?  First, how much do you even remember about the day?  If you were able to remember, how did you describe the day?   Did you reel off a list, a series of tasks, encounters and actions?  Most people would.  A writer would be able to describe the details…. how the eggs smelled, what the sun looked like, how your neighbor laughs.  Think about the people you interacted with yesterday.  How did this person speak?  Rapidly?  With an accent? Explain what they meant or were thinking, not what they said.  Are you able to?  If this exercise was difficult, then you are not ready to write, not yet.  You need to start living words.  Have you lived salty, frigid, still, naked, bemused, regretful, sour or unbreakable.

The other problem with telling writers to ‘write what you know’ is that people think in literal terms.  There are some exceptions, Le Carre was a spy.  However, most writers don’t actually write what they know.  They take what they know, the tastes, emotions, smells, mannerisms, actions, expressions and people they observe and then add a spoonful of imagination to the stew.  J.K. Rowling did not attend wizard school.  She did have some neighbors, a brother and sister whose last name, Potter, she preferred over her own.

Next, think about James Michener.  He was a meticulous researcher and spun his detailed notes into epics spanning geographies and generations.  If you were asking yourself a minute ago who James Michener was, well that’s the other thing about writing.  To write you must read.  So put down the pen, close the laptop and start reading.  Read it all.  Read books, magazine articles, essays.   Read the cereal box.  Read Shakespeare, Oates, Alice Walker -  read people you have never heard of.

William Faulkner said, “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”  
Write, write, write.  Then write some more. 


  1. I like the Faulkner quote. But I think we need experience with some things before we write about them. Cancer shouldn't be written about if you've never known anyone with it.

  2. i totally agree

  3. I agree with Hannah. I think personal experience goes a long way.

  4. Within good taste, imagination can do anything. I think Kendra advocates that a writer can use their experiences to do create a wide range of ideas beyond their experience. This is true.

  5. I really appreciated this article. Having heard/read that I should "write what I know", I've found the edict to be quite frustrating. Try explaining to your spouse of 13 years that "what you know" is boring, mundane, and wouldn't sell even if it were the only book available on the market. To anyone who's never wanted to be a published author, and who's never struggled with trying to come up with an idea, the concept of writing what you know sounds simple and logical. I think it is anything but. It can also lead to horrible, circular thoughts of "What do I know? What should I do to increase what I know?" Blah! Trying to find something more exciting to learn can lead to drama and strife that is unnecessary. Just my opinion.

  6. Use your experience and knowledge to weave a story. Some real life stories can be weaved into fiction and fiction can be weaved into real life. I've never liked the 'write what you know' because I don't "know" dragons yet I write about those all the time. I write about the knowledge I have of dragons, sure, but I don't "know" them personally, no one does.

    Great article. Thanks so much!