author, creative writing, writing

The Do’s and Dont’s of Writing What You Know

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice. Write what you know. But what does it mean? That you can only write about crime if you’re a police officer (or a criminal?!)? That you can only write about falling in love with a stranger in Paris if you’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt? I’m sure you’ll all agree that’s not what it means at all. Not all fiction is fantasy, but all fiction is…well…fictional! And that gives you endless possibilities and freedom. BUT, for the sake of advice, here are some of my Do’s and Dont’s of writing what you know.

Do use real experiences
Writing what you know doesn’t mean you have to have experienced the same things as your characters. You don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery (in fact, I strongly advise against this in any situation!), nor do you need to live in a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park to set your story there. However, in all writing, your own personal experiences will shape your work. Use the emotions you have felt, the places you’ve seen, thoughts you’ve had, and people you’ve encountered. This adds authenticity to your work, making it relatable and true.
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Don’t limit yourself
Sure, you should draw from your experiences, but don’t limit yourself to only them. Writing is about freedom and passion, about imagination and innovation. Don’t let this ‘rule’ limit you. Your story is exactly that…yours. Any boundaries are put in place by you, which means you can knock them down if you need to.
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Do research
If you’re writing about things you don’t know, simply do some research. There are so many ways to research, especially with the internet at our finger tips. Read essays and articles, watch documentaries and interviews, speak to people, ask for feedback, listen to speeches and talks. Not only does this add credibility to your work, but you’ll learn so much along the way. Before you know it, the things you didn’t known will become the things you do know now.
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Don’t make assumptions or uneducated guesses
This ties in directly with the point above. Stories are stories, and most readers will forgive a bit of poetic licence if it makes the book more exciting. But making wild guesses could not only annoy readers, but offend them too. This is especially true when writing about difficult topics such as grief, discrimination, mental health and physical illness. It can be insensitive to get the facts wrong.
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Do use your unique insight
I love reading a book with all the unique inside knowledge of somebody who knows. There’s such a richness to it. A detective series written by an ex-detective, for example. Use your insight to add depth to your characters, your settings and your plot. These can be drawn from a job you’ve had, a lifestyle you experienced, a challenge you’ve overcome or a struggle you’ve pushed through. Not only will you be able to write the story with your inside knowledge, the reader will enjoy a glimpse of something they may not have otherwise known.
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Don’t be too niche
If you are writing about things relating to your own life, best not to be too niche. You could cut any chance of connection with your readers by focusing on something the vast majority can’t relate to. Make sure you give away enough description and explanation to be captivating and interesting. If you use inside terminology, vague descriptions or cryptic messages your readers may lose all interest or become bored right away.
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What are your views on ‘write what you know?’ I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do comment them below, or come chat on Twitter or Instagram.

Until then,
keep writing,

15 thoughts on “The Do’s and Dont’s of Writing What You Know”

  1. A sensible take on ‘write what you know’.
    I wrote a book set in Roman Britain. I’m not a historian, and obviously wasn’t there to experience it. I did extensive research, though, and found out about what it was like to live at that time, as near as is possible. (Incidentally, one reviewer, who is a historian, said it was well researched.)
    I think, as you said, drawing on your experiences of emotions should be number one. Also, you can draw on places you know. I do that in my fantasy. If I see a building, or woodland that resonates with me, I might use it in my work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I love historical fiction, and am always in awe at the amount of research that must’ve gone into it. Your comment on using settings that resonate with you is spot on too. xx


  2. I hear the saying ‘Write What You Know’ so often, yet I write about stuff that (as far as I’m aware) has never happened. I’m talking here about sci-fi. I guess if we allow our minds to think we’ve done something, then we can write about it (if it’s not real).
    I’m terrible about doing research, but realise it’s something vital if I’m to improve my writing.
    Thanks for the great tips.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, thank you. I always have to write about places I have been to and I realised it’s because of the smells. That is one sense you can’t get from research other than being there. London has a different smell to New York; the Australian bush is so different from the English countryside. Leaving out one sense for me even if I wasn’t mentioning it much would flatten my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for commenting Davina! I must agree, sense of smell really captures a place. Smells can bring such nostalgia and really resonate with readers. xx


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