Write What You Know???


We’ve all heard it. Some of us have heard it so often it is little more than a familiar cliché. I’m talking about the age-old piece of advice to ‘write what you know’. I think the phrase has been credited to Mark Twain. Anyway, being that I am of a philosophical nature, I have spent considerable time pondering this adage. It has to be sound advice, right? Otherwise, why would so many great writers use it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it all depends on how you interpret it.

If you take the phrase ‘write what you know’ literally, then as a writer your scope of material is extremely limited. What if you want to write a story about divorce, but you’ve never been divorced? Does that mean that you shouldn’t write that story? The same goes for a story about an overweight man. If you’re a petite woman, does that mean you should disregard the urge to put pen to paper about that subject. I think not. It means that you should become an expert on the vast experiences of divorce and life as overweight person. It means that you should make it your mission to intensely study that which you have not experienced first hand. Authenticity is the goal.

On the flip side, writing based upon your own first hand experience is much easier. Writing about something you have lived will  help things unfold naturally. You’ll have the opportunity to spend less time researching external factors and more time being introspective. Writing from personal experience can also be healthy and cathartic.

Bottom line-I agree with the advice to write what you know to a certain extent. However, I’d like to add an appendage: make it your business to ‘know’ more.

What’s your interpretation of the advice to write what you know?


2 thoughts on “Write What You Know???

  1. My opinion of that timeworn cliché, knowing that the word “timeworn” is also a cliché, I’ll start by quoting a useful clichés. “Rules are made to be broken.” I know some successful writers who specifically write what they don’t know. But that’s difficult to pull off. Those who manage to do it, do so because they have such an incredible command of the art and craft of writing, that they could write about the contents of their medicine cabinet and make it read well.

    I think that for young writers, or for anyone who has recently given in to the desire to write, it’s always a good idea to write from personal experience. And I whole-heartedly agree with your appendage–every good writer must make it a lifelong quest to know more–about the human experience, and about how to write well.


  2. Well said Tracy. Some writers like the challenge of treading unfamiliar territory. You’re absolutely correct: it’s much more difficult to write about the unfamiliar. But sometimes that’s part of the fun!


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