Writers Wednesday: Writing What You Know, Or Not

If you’ve been following along for a little while, you may recall that I’ve committed to drafting my first novel this year. Surprisingly, making the leap to fiction after years of academic and journalistic writing requires letting the fundamentals go. In journalism, you write what you know. What you know is what you can verify. Crossing the line into reporting things you don’t know is precisely what gets you into professional difficulties.

The same is true in research. You report what you can back up with sources and original work.

Fiction, however, is by definition not reality. Fiction is all about what could be, what might be, not what is. Why, then, are budding fiction writers still told to “write what you know” so often?

In The Atlantic, Bret Anthony Johnston posited that following the “write what you know” mantra limited creativity instead of encouraging it.

“Part of me dies inside when a student whose story has been critiqued responds to the workshop by saying, ‘You can’t object to the _________ scene,'” Johnston wrote. “‘It really happened! I was there!’ The writer is giving preference to the facts of an experience, the so-called literal truth, rather than fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity.”

In other words, take “write what you know” too literally, and you might come up with a prize-winning article, but you probably won’t be crafting a fictional masterpiece, considering the whole point of storytelling is to escape real-world constraints. Of course, I am one who banishes countless story ideas to the dustbin for lack of relevant earthly experience. More confident writers may feel comfortable bulldozing ahead despite this kind of advice.

So does that mean you shouldn’t know what you’re talking about? Hardly. Johnston suggested writers should use their knowledge and experiences as inspiration sources. The goal is to infuse storytelling with elements of familiarity and believability, not to restrict authors to narrating curated versions of their own lives. That’s memoir, not fiction. Nanci Panuccio at Emerging Writers Studio takes this concept a step further, calling it “your emotional truth . . . tapping into the things that deeply matter to you. Your pain, humiliation, frustrations, fears, obsessions and confusions. It’s your spin on the world and all that you are.”

But what do we know? How much do we know? And do we know anything that is inherently interesting or valuable?

Here, I’ve identified five types of knowledge to guide your fictional trajectory.

1. We know what we have experienced.

2. We know what we feel.

3. We know what we have been taught.

4. We know what we have researched.

5. We know what we can imagine.

Every time you draft a story, all of your unique knowledge is there in the room with you. It’s a starting point, not an end game.


I’m blogging my way through my first novel in 2016. Subscribe to the RSS feed on the home page or find me on Facebook for new updates!

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