Authors Answer 123 – Should You Write What You Know?

Authors seem intelligent, right? They probably know a lot of things. But are they experts on what they write? What happens if an author writes about something they know nothing of? Should authors write only about what they know?

Question 123 – Write what you know. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Elizabeth Rhodes

Absolutely not. If every writer followed this rule, there’d be no such thing as fantasy, horror, or science fiction. We don’t “know” these things because they aren’t a part of our everyday lives, and yet authors churn out books about magic, robots, interstellar travel, or zombies all the time. By all means research what you’re planning to write, but to say you have to experience things in order to write about them is absurd.

Paul B. Spence

Know? Understand? Have experienced? I have never experienced a space battle, outside of dreams/nightmares. So how could I ever write about it if I followed this rule? I incorporate more of my real experiences into my writing than people would believe anyway.

H. Anthe Davis

Seeing as I write fantasy, sci-fi and horror, none of which I have actually experienced, I would have to mostly disagree.  While it’s great to speak from the heart (and essential in some genres/stories, where you’re trying to speak for someone with a specific experience and the text would be harmed if you didn’t have a real knowledge of that experience), research and imagination can fill in a lot of space.  If you doubt your take on an experience, you can always seek out people who embody it or have actually had it; it’s always good to pass your work through a variety of hands to get a variety of opinions anyway.

Cyrus Keith

Dis…agree. Write what you want to write. If you don’t know it, find out. So I guess really, it’s not “write what you know,” It’s “Know what you write.” I knew nothing about antimatter before I wrote Becoming NADIA. But I researched it. I have an historical novel set in Roman times warming up on the back burner. I REALLY didn’t know some of the awesome things the Romans did, or how their legions were actually organized. I guess I agree, only on the premise that even if you find out five minutes before you actually put the words on the screen/paper, it counts as knowing. The bottom line is, you want readers to be able to live easily in your world. Make it easy by making it believable. Make it believable by doing some research on the world/science/culture. If you write about any real cultures, at least do them the courtesy of getting to know them. If you’re making up a culture, have a culture to know. 90% of them will never be seen by the readers. But if they are there, they make your world more real. So write about what you know, but don’t be afraid to know more than you do. Don’t let yourself stagnate by thinking you have to be an expert with a doctorate and 20 years’ experience before you write about it.

D. T. Nova

I agree with some interpretations of that advice, but not others. You certainly don’t need to have actual experience with what you write about, and in some genres of fiction it’s less applicable than others.

Eric Wood

I definitely agree. If you know the material it will show in your writing. The best example I have of this is when I answer my kids question in my Friday posts. The better I know the answer the better I can explain it. Most times I need learn it (aka Google it) before I can start writing about it because I don’t understand it. So if you know what you write your writing will easily understood. Like Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Beth Aman

Again, somewhat agree?  Depends on what this means.  Yes, draw from your experiences and your life as you write, but also use your imagination.  Use empathy, step into another person’s shoes.  Also, don’t be afraid to talk to other people and draw from their experiences as you write.  In terms of “what you know” of the plot: write the parts of the story that you already know are going to happen.  If you’re struggling to write chapter 1 but you have a perfect vision for chapter 3, then write chapter 3.  Write what you can, always.

C E Aylett

I do agree, but in the sense that if you want to write about something you know nothing about, then do the research. Once you are familiar with what or whom you will write about it’s much easier and will seem authentic to the reader. I’ve written many stories in areas I knew nothing about and managed to pull off the authenticity because I thoroughly researched my subject and characters. That’s the job of a writer. But if authors only wrote what they know (as in, only from your direct experiences) then there would be a lot of good fiction not in existence — books involving murders and magic for starters. I think half the fun of a book is the author discovering the unexpected as much as the reader. That kind of spark seamlessly carries over from one party to the other and stops it from becoming dull.

Jean Davis

Agree. Not to say researching what you don’t know is also valid, but using what you do know as a foundation to build from makes a story more believable and more enjoyable to write.

Gregory S. Close

Sure, write what you know.  But if you don’t know, learn it and write about that too.  Writing fiction is about imagination as well as craft, so I don’t believe you should limit yourself to only what you know and are comfortable with. I think inserting what you know into stuff you don’t is a neat trick, though, and it can add a nice nuance when the truth of your experience peeks through without strangling the spirit of your narrative.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

Yes, and no. I agree in the sense that it is significantly easier to write about what you know, and there is much, much less chance that you’ll make glaring errors that annoy readers. For instance, I do my best to avoid my characters using guns, because I know absolutely nothing about them, and I don’t want to screw up the terminology or imply that a particular gun can do something it doesn’t (say, a character changes the magazine in a gun that takes individual bullets), because that can really turn a reader off if they know the difference.

That said, I definitely think that we should push our limits, do our research, and take chances. If we always stick stubbornly to only what we know, we’ll never learn, and our writing will get stale and boring.

Jay Dee Archer

I agree, mostly. I say mostly because knowledge can be gained. If an author doesn’t know something, they do research. After research, then they know the subject and can write about it in a more accurate manner. But there are things that authors write that simply don’t exist. Take fantasy, for example. Much of what’s in fantasy is completely made up. I guess the author is the most knowledgeable person about that fantasy world, though. They invented it. If I don’t know something, I research it. I find it to be a very interesting part of writing.

How about you?

Do you think authors should know what they write? Let us know in the comments section below.

6 thoughts on “Authors Answer 123 – Should You Write What You Know?”

  1. Whether I agree or not depends on what is meant by “Write what you know.” I’ve heard some people, including at least one creative writing instructor at a university (plus an inebriated English grad student at a party I shouldn’t have been attending anyway, being only a nineteen-year-old freshman at the time) say that writers should limit themselves to writing about things they have personally experienced, which means there shouldn’t be any science fiction or fantasy, only former spies should write spy thrillers, and no woman should ever write about the adventures of a fourth-grade boy and his friends.

    If “Write what you know” is taken to mean that writers should use their own experiences and observations to better imagine what life is like for the fictional people they write about, I agree. I don’t think it’s possible to do otherwise, actually. (Fun fact: it’s not possible to imagine something totally unrelated in some way to things you already know.) If you don’t have personal experiences or observations, you can do research, which doesn’t have to mean looking stuff up in a book or online. You can talk to people who have done the thing you want to describe, or have lived in the place you want to set your story.

    I write science fiction, mostly. There ARE bits of my own experiences in some of my stories (in a short story I’m working on now, in fact), but obviously I also have to make a lot of stuff up, because I’m writing about things that NO ONE knows from direct personal experience.

  2. writing is a form of exploration. When a writer speculates and explores a subject he is expanding his own knowledge through research or trial and error. Brain-storming is the process of reaching conclusions or points of view through a process of brain manuevers.

    on the other hand, it is wrong for a writer to just wing it, expounding about things she does not understand or knows nothing of. Questioning, or discussing various ideas to form a hypothesis or position on a given topic is admirable and productive….to show off and spread misinformation is not a good thing.

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