Should You Write What You Know?


They say to write what you know, but should you? We’ve all heard this writing advice. But what if you’re writing a far-out story, like fantasy or science fiction? In this post, we’ll explore what it truly means to write what you know. It could mean something different than you think.


What does it mean?

Most people think writing what you know is about writing situations that you’ve personally been in. An example might be writing about a person going through financial struggles if you have yourself at one point. Another example might be to write about a protagonist whose parents are divorcing, if your parents have. The benefits to writing in this literal fashion is that you know exactly how the character feels. You’re able to accurately portray the character’s emotions via your experience. Even though some of the experiences weren’t pleasant to live through, it provided you with a well of material to work with.


The opposite advice

It’s much less common, but there’s also advice telling you to write what you don’t know…on purpose. These people promote that it brings out the element of spontaneity in your story. It’s said that you can explore much more creatively outside the parameters of your own experience. If you want to stretch as a writer into unknown territory, this might be the way to go. The word of caution with this method is to be careful to not come across as painfully ignorant about the topic you’re writing about. You’ll need to do at least some research to make sure you’re within the ballpark of accuracy.


Writing what you know in a fantasy world

What about if you’re writing a fantasy, sci-fi, or any other out-there storyline in which you have no direct experience? You probably haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole to Wonderland recently. Odds are, you won’t fly on a magic carpet over an Arabian city. So how do you write what you know in these types of fantastical settings? The key lies in writing what you know regarding themes and not necessarily setting. Let’s take Peter Pan, for example.

Think of the themes in that story. Some that come to mind are abandonment, fear of being alone, vindication, love, seeking companionship, growing up, etc. I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hasn’t felt one of those in the past month. In a recent post, we also talked about the themes in The Lord of the Rings. Now, you might say I’m silly, that Peter Pan is just a story about green tights, fairies, and pirates. Is it really? Think about it.



So while you may not be able to directly relate or have experienced every element of your story, you can always relate to the core theme of it. In that regard, pour yourself into that aspect, showing the framework of your fantastical story through the emotions of your very self.




Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr

11 thoughts on “Should You Write What You Know?

  1. Great advice. It’s good to be reminded how to use everyday or other life experience in a more relevant or exciting way than we might think to do as writers. Merry Christmas Ryan!


  2. Having now written and published 5 books in 4 years, I’d modify this to “write what your somewhat comfortable with,” even though that’s lousy grammar.

    In each novel I’ve tried something new, but at their cores, they’re all about inter-personal relationships.

    Good article; thank you!


  3. I would like to add that, without creative ideas, our world cannot evolve. If all anyone ever wrote about were things that they’ve been taught or can be proved, we’d die from boredom. For me, a fantasy/sci-fi reader and writer, I say, please give me your most outrageous ideas and I’ll give you mine.


    1. Hi, “muddling”–
      I’m sort of in the same situation you are. I write suspense, but inevitably have legal issues and the police wind up in the novels. I’m a stay-at-home mom married to an engineer; I don’t even know any police officers! I have to do a lot of research to get certain things right.

      But crime? I may not have committed any crimes or been the victim of one, but I know my own heart and what horrible, vicious things I can imagine doing to other people. (And if I can imagine it, someone else has already done it.) I use that as my experience for the themes. And somehow the antagonists always seem to be scarily similar to the worst-case-version of myself. So in a sense, I’m writing what I know best: myself.


  4. Hi Meredith, thanks for your message Yes it is hard writing about what you don’t know but I like the genre. Thanks for sharing! I can only imagine what some people live through.

    I have a lady homeless who then ends up dealing cocaine in order to be able to rent a flat… Ive never been in that situation. I know I should volunteer at a homeless shelter to get some first hand experience but it is making the commitment to do it, especially when I have two small children who need me at night time.


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