Who Said Write What You Know?

Writing w computer

Write What You Know
Personally, I think that’s bogus advice without more explanation, but being told don’t write what you know” might panic new writers, for two reasons:

First, like most of us, the very nature of our life experience necessarily means we know an awful lot (or think we do).

I’ve met indie authors who are still teenagers, some who are war veterans, professional actors, former psychiatric patients … and a few who are certified geniuses.

They are all endlessly interesting people and their lives are indeed brimming with uniquely compelling experiences.

Second, again like most of us, we’ve been encouraged for as long as we can remember to write that way. We’ve been told over-and-over by well-meaning, if misinformed, articles and teachers: Write what you know.

I don’t know the origin of that logic. A lot of folks attribute it to Hemingway, who is often quoted as saying:

“From all the things you know, and all those which you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing, truer than anything true and alive.”

But I don’t think he’s saying “write what you know.”

Check it out again. I think he’s really saying stories aren’t about actions or things directly from your life.

Stories are inventions drawing upon experience of all kinds … some directly from life, some inferred from the good writing of others, and still others dredged up from our well of imagination.

Stories are things and actions unto themselves.

Write what you know. Without the further explanation that it’s the invention you bring to your writing that’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author, and fiction that … well … matters, is no explanation at all.

That’s a shame, because it’s only the characters we create … those constructions of imagination that transcend our biases, agendas, memories and egos, that can stand the test of time.

For your characters to actually seem like people, you have to give them traits your readers can identify with for the story to work. All of your readers have experienced love, fear, hate, envy or curiosity, just as you do.

You may have your characters believe their ailments are caused by evil spirits, but they still should feel the same pain, fear and anxiety we all do, if you want them to be believable.

When you write, trust your powers of empathy and invention. Trust the examples of authors you love to read and trust that your craft, when braided with compassion, will produce stories that matter … both to you and to readers you may never meet.

So, take what you know and filter it through your imagination … and through the knowledge you’ve gleaned in your own reading, research and life experience.

The next time you hear “write what you know,” you’ll realize you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success.

It’s only waiting to be shaped by your imagination.


I recently received the Kirkus Review for my novel REICHOLD STREET: Skillfully written and emotionally charged!
Read the full review here.


You can find my books as eBooks or paperback on Amazon, or at Barnes & Noble. You’re also invited to visit my web site, BROKEN GLASS, or like my Book of Face page. You can also follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


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4 Responses to “Who Said Write What You Know?”

  1. benzeknees Says:

    Congrats on the award! I like your interpretation of “write what you know.” It allows for the influence of other writers & other’s experiences in what you write.


    • Ron Herron Says:

      The award was really the Readers Favorite medal, which was great. Kirkus is one of the prestigious review organizations but, since they are known for some occasionally harsh reviews, getting a good one from them is kind of like receiving an award, too.

      I’m glad you like my interpretation. I believe everything we do or see or think contributes to who we are. Thus, it is ALL part of what we know, and opening up our imaginations greatly expands the world we can talk and write about.

      Thanks for the comment. 😉


  2. T. W. Dittmer Says:

    I tried writing just what I know, and ended up with a blank document.


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