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Stronger Fiction: Should you write what you know or know what you write?

One of the oldest pieces of advice for people who want to write fiction is that they should “write what they know’. This sage piece of wisdom is passed down from teachers to young pupils, from tutors to college students and in many creative writing classes. Yet, what does it actually mean? And is it a piece of advice worth following?

Write what you know

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Writing what you know suggests that the writer can not step outside their own experience. It suggests that their writing should be autobiographical in nature and always include a piece of themselves. While it could be good advice to write about what you know, if you were a former pirate, sailing the high seas who accidentally kidnapped a prince, more normal people may find it more difficult. Most people’s lives are fairly ordinary and there doesn’t seem to be much room for excitement.

Directing someone to write what they know, ignores the rich imaginations that most writers have. We can imagine what it is like to walk on a strange planet or to dive deep in the oceans. We can imagine how things could turn out when you meet the one person that you have always wanted to meet – even if it has never happened to you. I would not recommend that writers always stick to writing what they know or what they have experienced.

Knowing what you write is a different thing. Here, writers research before they write and use it to help create the story. You may not know everything before you begin to write, but you may have done some research and use it to help the story along. You may need to stop and make notes of further knowledge you need, but you can begin the story and leave gaps. This will enable you to slot in extra research, which will enrich the story. The best research fits seamlessly in the story.

Call on your emotions for your writing

We have all experienced emotion in one form or another, even if we have not experienced a specific event such as losing a parent or having our heart broken. Most people understand what it can be to fall in love, to like somebody who doesn’t know you exist or somebody unattainable like a celebrity. Using the emotions that you have felt during your life is a good use of writing what you know. It can enrich your writing and bring your characters to life.

Another variation on this rule is to write what you read. This is some of the best advice that a writer could be given. If you already read and enjoy a particular type of genre, then you will enjoy writing it too. If you don’t read, then how will you know what you enjoy and which type of book calls to you on a deeper level? Being a reader is the first step to becoming a writer.

Do you write regularly? Do you think that you should write what you know or were rules made to be broken? Comment below.

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2 thoughts on “Stronger Fiction: Should you write what you know or know what you write?”

  1. I learnt a (terrible) thing while in advertising: rules were meant to be broken! Well… not all. But sometimes you do get stuck in a rut, and that’s when you break the rules to come up with something new. This is a lovely post and helps me with what I am ‘planning’ to write. It tells me it’s okay to write about what I don’t know. Thank you! This helps immensely!

  2. This is such a rich, juicy post. I haven’t written fiction since I left school but I do blog regularly and I’ve always had this over-arching dilemma.
    Do I write to teach, or do I write what my heart longs to explore? A variation of what you write about here but a similar underlying essence I believe.
    And over the past 30 days when I’ve been blogging daily I’ve discovered I love to do both – and doing so keeps alive my passion for writing.
    Thank you for such a great contemplation.

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