Should You Only Write What You Know?

The opinion of some writing instructors is to only write what you know.

Is this good advice or bad? Is it wise or limiting?

Actually, these are trick questions. Let me explain by turning this one phrase into two pieces of advice:

  1. Only write what you know.
  2. Research what you don’t know.

This covers everything. Of course, as soon as we learn something we don’t know, we automatically move it from the unknown column (item #2) to the known column (item #1). Research turns what we don’t know into what we know.

By applying rule number two before we write, we effectively follow rule number one when we write. But as soon as we follow rule number two, we don’t need it anymore, but then without it we can get into trouble. Thinking about this gives me a headache.

So, let me suggest a third item, one that replaces these first two rules and smartly resolves the discussion:

  1. Only write what you know.
  2. Research what you don’t know.
  3. Don’t write about things you don’t know.

As I contemplated this post (I generally plan my topics a few weeks in advance), fellow writer Susie Finkbeiner gave me a real-life example in her blog. She shared learning about funeral directors for her new novel, My Mother’s Chamomile, demonstrating that if you don’t know something, you should learn it before you write about it.

So, instead of only writing what we know, we’re actually better off if we don’t write about what we don’t know.

Has writing about what you didn’t know ever tripped you up?

4 thoughts on “Should You Only Write What You Know?

      • O, That is funny! So, did you educate yourself when you grew up? My son, who works in our liquor business has a friend who runs the FB page for the store. If you read his posts on beer, you would think he was a poet. You don’t want to stop reading. You feel like you taste every suttle of pronounced aroma or flavor in beer. But he has made it his business to learn all there is on the topic and drink nothing else but beer.

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