‘Write What You Know’ … Really?

{By Ellery Sadler}


I’ve always struggled with this theory of ‘writing what you know’ because I always thought that sounded boring.

I mean iPod’s and computers and regular people? Are you kidding? No orphans or princesses or magic or cowboys or stagecoaches? Are you honestly asking me to write about what I know?


But that means writing about what you know and about what you’ve lived. Not writing about your very own life. Your books or short stories do not need to be journals. 

For a long time I struggled with this concept. When I was younger I would flip-flop from ship-wrecked orphans to what literally happened to me yesterday. The result: not so good. I even saw it in a story I started only a year or two ago – different time period, but way too similar to my real life. So how do you balance what you know with what you want to write?

Writing ‘what you know’ really means writing authentically. It is being genuine. Not factual. It doesn’t mean you make your main character exactly like you, living during the same time period, and going through all the same problems as you.

It does mean, however, that you write with the authenticity and honesty.

Have you lost a grandparent? Then you know what it means to feel completely empty and alone after a funeral, even though a crowd of people are around you.

Have you had someone you thought you could trust suddenly become untrustworthy? Then you know what it’s like to be betrayed.

Have you met a goal or made a dream come true? Then you know what it’s like to live ‘happily ever after’ for a little while.

Have you ridden a horse? Then you know what it means to be deathly afraid. Ok … maybe that just me.

The point in writing what you know is to capture your own journey in the experiences, emotions, and situations of your characters. If you subtly drop some of the characteristics of your crazy neighbor into the aunt of your main character, there is an authenticity to your writing. If you create an emotional journey for your character similar to one you’ve had, the honesty comes through. If you write about the pain of losing someone after having lost one of your best friends, there is a genuineness that can by felt. Just be careful not to make your writing a way to vent your frustrations or into an alternate journal.   

And be very careful not to throw in your friends – they will see it, and probably not be too appreciative. So write about what you know, your experiences, your journey, your quirkiness. Not your friends. (Unless of course you ask permission.)

In my own writing life, this means I make characters that sometimes have the same emotional response I have, or maybe they go through a similar awkward situation, or maybe they have the same heartbreak of losing something they worked really hard for … whatever it is, I like to drop some pieces of real life into my books. It makes them genuine.

Writing about what you know is not writing about your life – it is writing about your journey through the life of your characters.

Write with authenticity – no one else has the same story as you do, no one else can write exactly like you do.