Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The most misunderstood writing rule: Write what you know.

Write what you know? I say write what you want to know.

Every time I hear someone use this line I cringe. Not because it is not true but because the one saying it most the time has no clue what it means or how to explain it to others. 

If it was true that a good writer has to write what he or she knows, there would not be young writers, or what about people who write about dragons and wizards... did they grow up on a dragon ranch and study magic? 

Now in crime fiction or a story that has to be real this rule gets to be even more misunderstood. So I shall give you my 29 cents about the subject. 

Write what you know: What most writers mean is if you were a doctor write medical thrillers or the like. If you were a cop write police procedurals. This is NOT what you should do, yeah it might be easier but you can write whatever you want.

I am not a cop, doctor or dragon wizard. But I write about cops, time travel, angels, demons, and sometimes romance.

Write what you know: The correct way to view this rule is to write what you know--what do you know about heartbreak? What do you know about fear, love, hate, greed, truth, lies, and revenge?  You ever get that feeling you are being watched, the fear that someone might be in the house in the middle f the night?

This is what it means to Write what you know. Old or young we all feel and have life experiences. Even children feel shame and loss when one of their friends says their mean and that they don't want to play anymore. 

Stephen King said in his book On Writing: that a great writer writes without fear. I never understood this till I understood that it takes courage to look at a painful time in my past and draw from that pain to write a scene about that same feeling. It is hard to let myself feel again the feelings I may have buried and transfer that to my story. But to go from a good writer to a great writer you must feel.

Now that you know what this old saying really means, can you Write what you know? No matter if the book is about dragons or cops it is all the same thing, feelings and how that moves the story.

What are some examples you may have had with your own writing? Did you draw from your past or maybe what you are going through now in your own life?

Author Aaron Patterson: Blog: The Worst Book Ever.


  1. Good post, Aaron. I refer to this kind of "advice" often and call it the "bumper sticker school of writer's advice." Meaning, it's only part of the advice--the part that can fit neatly on a bumper sticker. The entire advice is: Write what you can convince the reader you know. Makes more sense but it's harder to fit on a bumper sticker. Another of those is that "Show, don't tell." Well... hate to say it, but there are times in a novel when it's proper to tell. A novel that's 100% showing and not telling is called a "screenplay."

  2. You are soooooo right! (As always. LOL!) Lots of recent brain science research out there says readers read fiction for the express purpose of feeling what the story people feel - and when the story puts the readers into the feelings, everybody wins. Took me a long time to understand this.....

  3. When I started writing my novel, I had the heroine traveling from a small town outside of NYC. Then I thought, sheesh! At least make this part easy! (I changed it to Boulder.) I think writing from our imaginations is the fun part! I just research the stuff I don't know like what the police procedure is in France.
    Great point!

  4. Like every rule this one has its place. I think a good rule that includes the above one is a hybrid of three rules. The best writing comes from combining what you know, what you hear from others in real life, and what you can make up. I enjoyed the post.