Write what you know, NOT!

“Write what you know” is one of the most frequent pieces of writing advice. Problem is, it’s rubbish. As Cat Sparks discusses at length in this excellent post:

We’ve all heard that old adage ‘write what you know’. Well, that’s a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you’re just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren’t that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don’t know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.

Almost every book I’ve written has involved me doing research. Obviously, I did that for my two non-fic books. But also for my novels. The Magic or madness trilogy has a protag, Reason Cansino, who’s a mathematical genius. I am not. I can barely add up. I had to learn about Fibonaccis, prime numbers, and many other mathematical concepts that I barely grasped and have now completely forgotten, but hopefully make sense and worked in those three books. I’ve had some maths fiends write and tell me how much they appreciated Reason’s mathsiness. Those are the compliments that mean the most to me because that was by far the hardest part of writing the trilogy. I was writing stuff I didn’t understand. Or only barely. And only for long enough to write those bits of the book.

None of my novels are about people who are like me. Charlie in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a jock. I love sport, but I’ve never played that much and have never excelled. I would never have made it into a sports high school, even if I’d had the talent, cause I don’t have the discipline, and I really hate being told what to do. Charlie loves it. Rules make her happy, being at the strictest, most irrational high school in the world makes her happy. It would have driven me nuts. I would have been expelled within a week. Sometimes I think Charlie is the character I’ve written who is least like me. She has little intellectual curiosity, she’s happy with how things are, she loves rules, and she’s very very disciplined. Writing her was a revelation—I wound up liking and even understanding her. Whereas if we’d been at school together, I doubt we’d have had anything to talk about. Charlie doesn’t read or watch tellie and she doesn’t have much of an imagination.

If I’d’ve stuck to writing what I know, I wouldn’t have written any of those novels.

That’s not to say that I use nothing I know. Sometimes I give characters aspects of myself. Reason has spent time on indigenous settlements, so did I. Tom (also from the trilogy) has a father who’s a sociologist, so are both my parents. Tom in the trilogy loves fashion; so do I. But we’re still different. I’m challenged to get a button onto a shirt; Tom can make any item of clothing from scratch. So it required research to make his fashion prowess believable.

For me, one of the great pleasures of writing novels is exploring worlds I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about New Avalon when I began HTDYF. It’s an amalgam of places I’ve been, but it became its own city. Not like anywhere else. I didn’t know it until I wrote it. But I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know—about mathematics, about being an athelete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile. It’s why I kept writing for twenty years without being published. It’s why I will keep writing long after my career has dried up. And it’s why I’m so bewildered by those writers who keep writing the same book over and over again. Maybe I should write a novel about that kind of writer so I can figure it out?

Forget about “write what you know”. Or, rather, don’t be limited by that injunction. One of the scariest things I encountered on my tour was when I was being shown around a lovely school and I was introduced to all the different grades, even kindergarten, and in one class, second grade, I think, the teacher told her students that I was a writer:

“She writes stories for a living!”

The kids looked a bit bemused by this information but smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back.

“When you were their age,” the teacher asked me, “you wrote about your own experiences, didn’t you?”

“Oh, no,” I said immediately, “I wrote about dinosaurs and wizards and witches and monsters and—”

The teacher cut me off even as many of the kids were giggling. “Yes, but don’t you agree that it’s much better to learn to write from your own experiences?”

I don’t think that at all. I was horrified. So horrified that I just stared at her, not able to articulate my response. I don’t think anyone noticed because someone realised we were running late and I was led away. But later that day I made it a point to talk about how important and fun it is to write about stuff you don’t know, and that the way to do that is to make it into something you do know.

For example, maybe you have an excellent idea for a story about a kid whose mum is an elephant trainer? But you don’t know anything about elephants or what goes into training them. Start reading up on it and once you have go to the zoo nearest you. See if you can interview the zoo keeper about how they keep their elephants. Ask yourself lots of questions: How happy are elephants to be trained? How much longer do they live in the wild than in captivity? Would your character have an ambivalent attitude to their mum’s job?

That’s a lot to learn. Maybe you can ground your story by setting it somewhere you’re familiar with, or giving your protag some aspect of yourself. I doubt anyone writes a story that’s entirely made up of stuff they don’t know. In fact, once you’ve researched it, you do know it.

Hmmm, I think I’ve come full circle: write what you know.

But remember that what you know includes everything you’ve learned, all your research, everything you’ve read, or heard or seen. So the more you read, and hear and see, the more you have to write about.


  1. Kathleen on #

    I always switch it around to “Know what you write”.

  2. Phil on #

    Have you read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’? There’s a part in there where he speaks about this whole ‘write what you know’ business. The way he puts it, you can write about anything you want, as long as you tell the truth. He said:

    “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.”

    Which sounds pretty much bang on, doesn’t it?

  3. Nicholas Waller on #

    When I was at primary school in Beirut one of my teachers asked my mother about our sailing boat. “We’ve never had a sailing boat,” she replied. Apparently one of my stories contained convincing descriptions of mucking about in boats, which I had absorbed (or nicked) from the Swallows and Amazons books. (40 years later I discovered – by running into her daughter at a folk club – that there had been another mother at this school, Brigit Sanders, who was one of the Altounyan children Arthur Ransome used as inspiration for the Walker family in those stories.)

  4. Sir Tessa on #

    Wot Kathleen sed.

  5. Patrick on #

    I like the idea of write what you want to know – which is what I think you are saying. This will make the research phase interesting and exciting.

    I always thought the write what you know expression was good for absolute beginners, for people who are having trouble finishing a story, for people who are working on their craft still(Well, you should always be working on your craft.) But if you take out the need for much research, it allows you to concentrate on writing and not be distracted, especially if what you need to research is shiny.

    It always offends me when someone interprets WWYK to mean, men shouldn’t write women protagonists or any other variation of make the character look like you…

  6. JJ on #

    Similar to Stephen King, I say “Write what you know to be true” with regards to human emotion. Everything else can be made up.

    But I think it’s bollocks that people give writers this “advice.” No one tells actors to “act only what you know?” They do their research, they pretend, they imagine, and if they’re method actors, they go out and live as their character for the day. And no one says, “Oh they shouldn’t be playing that evil genius; they aren’t a genius!” Bah.

  7. Mark on #

    You speak like the professional person you are, far removed from the wannabe who thinks researching stuff is a waste of writing time. I think you must write accurately, if you know it then you don’t have to do (much) research, if you don’t know it then you do (or write fantasy where you don’t have to).

  8. jocelyn on #

    This is excellent, excellent advice. I love it. If we followed the advice of our boring, lacking in imagination schoolteachers like that one (and my own second grade teacher, actually), there would never be any books about fairies or wizards or zombies!

  9. Cat on #

    Don’t think that Rowling knew first hand what being a boy wizard was really like. Imagination, research, working hard, writing writing writing, rewriting, using what you know, believing in yourself, never giving up, etc etc…all help in the process. Finishing something also helps but it is not easy (this is my problem). It is a long hard process. Not for the faint of hearts. I wish everyone well in the process but never forget that imagination is a big part of the process.

  10. Cat on #

    So is editing…I should have edited the ending. c

  11. Melinda Szymanik on #

    John Marsden says stories come from only two places: imagination and experience. Sometimes you have to borrow experience through research but ultimately imagination and experience are vast (limitless) places. The only limits are the ones we put on ourselves because of what we’ve been taught or told by unimaginitive, inexperienced people. Although laziness can be limiting too. Especially over the holidays.

  12. Kelly McCullough on #

    I heartily agree. That’s one of my own least favorite pieces of writing advice and one that I’ve railed against in blogland from time to time as well. Linked.

  13. Judith Ridge on #

    Thanks for posting this, Justine. It’s the one thing you hear said to young writers time and again, and it drives me nuts. I don’t know where it came from, but I suspect it may have somehow got bastardised from what JJ quotes Stephen King as saying, about writing from emotional truths. Write what you know in your heart, perhaps is good advice, but sadly that’s not usually what people mean when they say this. I am teaching a creative writing course next week for HSC students and I may well refer them to this post (or print it out and distribute it to them, if that’s OK with you!).

  14. Nicole on #

    Shannon Hale recently blogged on this topic at http://www.squeetus.com. She shared a similar opinion that is worth reading. ~Thanks Justine, I agree!

  15. Angela Slatter on #

    How about ‘Write what you love’?

Comments are closed.