Todays Author / writing

It’s OK to Write What You Don’t Know

mark twainMark Twain started it when he said, “Write what you know.” From then on, writers have taken that as gospel. Dig deep. Scratch out what you feel/think/are passionate about and bleed it onto the page.  As new writers it’s one of three truths pounded into us–Show don’t tell, Murder your babies, and Write what you know.

No one ever asks, “Don’t novelists make stuff up?” It doesn’t seem to matter that no one’s ever seen DC blow up though thriller writers postulate it all the time. How about a massive gorilla atop the Empire State Building? Fantasy writers make up whole worlds and species. As do Sci Fi aficionados. Did they not get the memo? What about Hannibal Lector, cutting people’s heads open to eat their living brain? Or Criminal Minds‘ psycho killers? I’d rather drink Drano than think they’re real.

In a rational literary world, making stuff up makes sense. It’s called ‘fiction’, which Webster defines as ‘not real’ (I’ve abbreviated, but you get the idea). How does that jive with ‘Write what you know’. What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’. But that’s got all the literary charisma of a dirty needle.

Maybe he meant it as a suggestion, Write what you know. Or not. Your choice.

I confess, I tried to ‘write what I know’. I imagined what people I knew would do in particular circumstances and wrote that story. It was boring. Then, I researched a topic, got all the details exquisitely perfect and added fiction characteristics like characters, setting, crises, pacing–stuff like that. It was creative nonfiction before that was invented. I figured I was still ‘writing what I knew’, just embellishing.

No one bought it. I actually loved it, but not so much I didn’t recognize that it had no power, passion, or pull.

That’s when the truth hit me: Great authors don’t write what they know. They write what they wish they knew or should know. Maybe they include their politics or morals or some other closely-held opinions, like sauce on an over-cooked chicken, but the rest is fiction.

Today, twenty years and counting into my writing fantasy, I’m ready to admit I’ve been duped. If you like me have seen the truth, I invite you to a virtual Write-What-You-Know Writers Anonymous meeting. Add your name to the Comment section below. I’ll start. Hi. My name is Jacqui, and I’m a recovering WWYKW. Since my epiphany, I’ve written ten thousand eight hundred and seventy words that have no basis in my life, history, or reality. 

Who’s next?

–Image credit:

–Article first appeared in Today’s Author

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#IWSG–My Writing Style Doesn’t Work

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Writers Tip #37: Don’t be Afraid to Tell the Truth

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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33 thoughts on “It’s OK to Write What You Don’t Know

  1. Reblogged this on Maryde and commented:
    This blog post by Jacqui Murray gave me lots to think about as when writing my own stories, I try to include the facts I know, the information I research & the parts I like to think are purely my imagination!
    Thanks Jaqui


  2. Maybe it means to be sincere about what you write. Don’t make up garbage that can’t be supported by respect for your subject. I’ve noticed that people who irritate or anger me are people I admire – once I get to know them.
    A very interesting post, Jacqui. Really made me think.
    Shari *: )


  3. Becoming a Writer

    When I decided to become a writer,
    someone told me to write about what I know.
    I tried that advice, but found it much easier
    to write about what I see because I’ve found
    that I see more than I know.

    And besides, who really cares about what I know?

    Just something from my book of poems and short stories. Honestly though, “write what you know” is something I applied to nonfiction when I was a working journalist. Now that I write fiction, I’ve dropped that rule.


      • Haha Believe it or not, my work has found its way into literature, but not my own. My sister writes parody and one of her characters is an insurance agent. She wanted him to have a difficult job with difficult customers, where the dialogue would be over her readers head. She automatically thought of me.


  4. I never trust movements that spring forth from a few words taken out of context and spread by “experts” when it comes to art. For me the writing has to be fun. Research is like looking for buried treasure, but the “truths” of life always bleed through if you’re really in the flow and enjoying yourself. Great post!


    • I love taking history and bringing it to life, making it relevant and real to readers. History books are so darn narrative, you can miss everything except the facts. Historic fiction puts you right there. Which is better?


      • There are some great history writers, but people are so scarred by high school history books they never make the leap. I love reading 19th century memoirs.

        I write my fiction set in the 19th century as a way of time-traveling for my own pleasure. I don’t try to teach anything but if people learn little tidbits that spark an interest in history, all the better.


  5. Write what you know. We’ve heard the advice a million times, but we don’t necessarily understand what it means. We think it means write about our first-hand experiences. What we know comes from much more than just what we experience first-hand. What we know is part experience, part research and part imagination. In my first book (Who is Killing Doah’s Deer), there’s a bit about a teenage girl, Clara Ederle, a Siamese twin living in the Pine Barrens a hundred years ago. I wrote this young girl’s diary. It is, in my opinion, one of the better things I’ve written. And yet I promise you, I have no first-hand experience of what it is like to be a teenage female Siamese twin living in the backwoods in the early 1900s. I’ve never even kept a diary. But I knew who this young girl was. I knew her hopes and her dreams. My knowing came from some combination of experience and research and imagination. (And a little bit of luck). But the point is, I knew what it was to be a Siamese twin girl. To be this particular Siamese twin girl. It may sound odd to you, but when I wrote that character, when I wrote her diary, I was writing what I knew.


    • Well said, Jeff. The real ‘Clara’s’ in the world will never get to tell their story (I’m assuming they didn’t write a book). You do that for her. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a story and said, ‘That’s exactly like…’ though it, of course, was fiction.


  6. Sorry Jacqui, I’m not intellectually astute to know what WWYKN is. I missed this article when it appeared in Today’s Author but I think Mark Twain meant was that you write you what you know to be true and believable. And I think, it has been the creative writing gurus in the USA and UK gave it an academic slant makikng its meaning narrower and shallower. Or I could be complete wrong and happy to accept,if found guilty. Arun


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