Don't Write What You Know:
Authors Explain Why to Discard the Old Adage

First up is a short discussion by Michael Swanwick, from Flogging Babel:

It's the first piece of writing advice most of us hear: Write what you know. It's presented as gospel, usually by somebody who's never published a novel or a play or song lyrics in their life. And it's always presented with the serial numbers filed off it - without attribution.

As far as I've been able to determine, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who first formulated this "rule." Here, from his Journal, dated May 1849, is the original.

Immortality. I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.

Not quite what your high school creative writing teacher taught you, is it?

Worse, "write what you know" is bad advice in that it's actively counterproductive. Here's what Moss Hart, a man whose opinion on the subject is worth knowing, had to say about his first wholehearted attempt to write a play:

I suspected one way I had gone wrong from the start; and forever afterward it made me more than a little leery of those golden nuggets of advice so capriciously tossed out by elder statesmen of the theatre to credulous beginners, one of which I must have stumbled across and taken to heart: "Begin by writing of what you know best - do not wander off in fields that are strange to you. Take for your setting and characters only the places and people you know and stick to them." So went this preposterous bit of dramatic wisdom, thereby discounting the vital and immeasurable quality that imagination gives to all writing, whether it be for the stage or anything else. Since this bit of nonsense had issued from the lips of a quite famous playwright, I had slavishly followed it, writing of a place and people I knew, but completely failing to allow imagination to riffle through the pages as it might have done had I chosen a setting and characters not so highly colored by my own attitudes and prejudices. I had simply set down what I knew best, and stuck to it. The play had verity; what it lacked was the breath of life and imagination - two necessary ingredients for what is usually called creative writing.

That's from Act One, Hart's memoir of his early years. If you're about to start writing your first play, he's just saved you a ton of heartbreak.

And the next time somebody tells you to write what you know, feel free to tell them that I said: No, use your imagination.

Bad books on writing tell you to "WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW," a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.
      - Joe Haldeman

Bravo, Mr. Haldeman. I've actually heard writing professors telling their students this, sometimes going so far as to suggest "What's wrong with science fiction is that it's not writing about what you know." How boring would literature be if all we did was literally only write about our personal experiences and expertise? We literally could not have a fiction of the imagination or the future or the Other if we constrained ourselves to only what we know. This is why not every single person writes a memoir: The only way to make an average life interesting is through brilliant insights and mastering the tools of humor or conveying emotion or so forth. When that happens, great! But there's a lot more to literature than memoir.

Good science fiction not only poses questions, explores ideas, speculation and extrapolates about possible futures, and offers other mind-expanding goodness, but the best SF also provides deep insight into what it means to be human living in an age of ever-accelerating change.

Science fiction writers have a special obligation to research broadly so that when they write about such technological game-changers as the Singularity or transhumanism or astrophysics, or alternate histories where small but important changes affect our present, or political shifts that change everything about human society, or so forth, the reader can willingly suspend their disbelief.

So in that respect, sure, SF writers inject what we know about the universe around us and people and tech and change and so forth, but if all we do is "write what we know," we wouldn't write much anything at all that has the impact of good SF.

So if you're a new writer, ignore the hell out of that ancient adage... while doing your damnedest to learn everything you can about the alien things you want to speculate about. I suggest these alternatives:

"Use what you know," or "Know what you write [that is, learn it]."

- Chris McKitterick

"I resent people who say writers write from experience. Writers don't write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."       - Nikki Giovanni

We develop empathy for everything in our work - good guys, bad guys, their friends, their enemies, their pets, their homes, and the places they live. Through empathy, we bring stories to life, and empathy can save the world.

- Chris McKitterick

Showing Vs. Telling
By James Gunn

I put it simply: Showing allows the reader to see the action happening, as if on a stage in front of his or her eyes; telling is the stage manager standing in front of the curtain describing what is going on behind him. If you never let the reader get in anybody's head, you have protected yourself from most telling. f you observe the scene intently and describe it vividly enough that the reader can believe he/she is there, then you have achieved showing. I once wrote a book (CRISIS!) that started as a proposal for a television series and presented everything as if it were being recorded on a camera. Good exercise.


back to Workshop resources page
updated 2/5/2016