Write About What You Know

By Michael

For thirty years, the mid-term exam for Dr. McAnelly’s Biblical Literature class was always the same essay question: “Describe the wandering journeys of the Apostle Paul.” So a college football fullback and his roommate decided they wouldn’t study anything else, thereby leaving them more time for other attractive pursuits. Imagine their surprise when the question instead was, “Critique the major themes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.”

Now, imagine the fullback’s surprise when his roommate nevertheless began to write furiously for the next hour. The fullback stared at his blank test paper for a long time before giving up and leaving the room, but his curiosity was so strong that he peeked at his roommate’s essay as he walked past. The first sentence read, “Who am I to critique the words of the Lord Jesus? Let me rather describe the wandering journeys of the Apostle Paul.”

Seasoned authors advise, “Write about what you know.” In fact, you have to write about what you know. Try to write about what you don’t know, about which you haven’t got a clue, and you’ll be staring at a blank piece of paper for a long time. It’s one of the surest ways to contract writer’s block. If you succeed in actually getting words onto the page, your readers will be staring at it for a long time, trying to figure out what you just said, if not why you wrote it in the first place.

Why would anybody write about what they don’t know? Why would people do something like that?

  • Because someone important told them to. Essay tests in school are a good example. Your instructor asks you to write about one of the (several) chapters in the textbook that you never got around to studying. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to employ your literary skills to make your instructor believe that you read and understood the chapter. Changing the question rarely works.
  • Because what they don’t know seems more interesting than what they do know. Young writers frequently make that mistake. When you move into the cloud of unknowing to write your piece, you’re increasing your competition. In the mid-60s, without having any personal experience with them, lots of American teenagers were probably writing about monsters and spaceships, though these markets were already fully stocked with experienced grown-up writers. None of them wrote about being a real American teenager except S.E. Hinton. So her book The Outsiders got published and their books didn’t.
  • Because they value style over communication. Poets sometimes make this mistake. They write about the universal life force, instead of about a tree. Down-to-earth, brass-tacks writing doesn’t seem stylish enough. But uninformed writing is less interesting than informed writing. The details which make writing vivid and readable are missing, like a price tag in a store, or somehow “off,” like a carton of old milk.

Writing about what you know is a cure for writer’s block. That’s one reason why journaling or blogging is so popular among writers. Something must have happened to you today, unless you were dead. Write about it. It didn’t happen to anyone else, unless you’re a clone. Nobody has the same brain or biography as you, so nobody has the same perspective as you. If they do, I suggest you get your own perspective. You need your own. Don’t try to share with your neighbor. That’s cheating.

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8 Responses to “Write About What You Know”

  • annie

    I guess so. I don’t know much about the future beyond the gloom and doom scenarios but I like to write about it. There are some things you can’t know until you write about them.

  • Bill Womack

    I agree with “write what you know” as a concept, but I think a lot of fiction writers get hung up on a misguided notion of what it means. Recently, I saw an online discussion in which a writer rejected the idea, using the logic “I’ve never been a man, so I’m not supposed to write male character?” Obviously, that’s not the intent of the expression.

    What you know is a broad category. Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to be in a war, but I’ve been in a fight. I’ve never been lost on the tundra, but I’ve been so cold I couldn’t make my fingers work. Like method actors, we’re not always required to have specific knowledge in the details of what we’re writing, so long as we have an experience to call on that lends the writing credibility. The ultimate goal is to transport readers, to suspend their disbelief and immerse them in a new reality. If you get there, no matter the route, you’ve succeeded.

  • Nathan

    This is very good advice, but I still refuse to accept the use of ‘journal’ as a verb.

    How then does one get into the process of writing fantasy? Certainly Tolkein and Lewis could not have literally known Middle Earth or Narnia before they set out to create them. They, however, produced some of the greatest works of fiction in the twentieth century.

    As a writer, albeit an American teenage writer, I would much rather emulate them than S.E. Hinton. Won’t my unique voice color any fiction I would write? Must I be self-referential and presumptuously autobiographical to get published?

  • Susabelle

    Excellent post. As a participant in NANOWRIMO I can’t count how many posts I’ve seen on the romance forum that involve “how do I write about a kiss when I’ve never had one” and how do I write about love when I’ve never been in love.”

    The truth is, you can’t. You can make it up, or copy it from someone else’s description, but until you’ve been kissed, or been in love, you don’t know what those things feel like.

    I was once one of those young writers. I have the horrifying short romance stories in long-hand to prove it.

    I am always writing what I know, for the most part. I may do research and learn about a situation or job or whatnot, but the true core of the story is something I understand because I’ve been there before.

  • Chris

    The advantage you have of writing what you know is to bring to the table the nuances of the subject. I work in a vet clinic. I have perspectives of working there that may not be obvious to clients, but if I write of it, will give my work credibility of writing about a subject that I understand.

  • Michael

    Good comments. I should point out that, actually, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did write about what they knew. That doesn’t mean they had experienced everything their characters had. It does mean that when Lewis wrote about university professors in his Space Trilogy, it had a ring of authenticity because he was a university professor. When Lewis quoted from fictitious medieval literature in That Hideous Strength, it sounded real because he taught medieval literature. Tolkien invented believable languages in The Lord of the Rings, and how? Because he was a well-known expert in languages. Are you stirred by their battle scenes? Both men were veterans of World War I. More importantly, both writers knew love and loss, triumph and defeat. It’s interesting that Susabelle implies she wrote romance stories before she knew what love was. That’s what I’m warning against. Don’t think that your own experience isn’t worth writing about, and don’t think that you can write anything worth reading without drawing from it. Don’t think that you need to discard your own unique voice to be a writer. You have no other voice.

  • EmJay

    I have been wanting to write something that I dont know but I still cant write. please advise

  • Anna Cott

    Write about what you DON’T know.

    In my experience the result is a whole lot more interesting.

    I often start my novel with characters (either based loosely on people I know, or who I’ve met or even who I’ve glanced walking in the street). They are then cast off on an adventure (I know this probably sounds very cliche) and it goes off in any direction. What they do or where they go, I know NOTHING about.

    I think this is one of the many charms of writing (especially fantasy).

    You let the novel do the work. This world exists. Your job is merely to describe it.

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