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What Does It Mean to Write What You Know?

‘Write what you know’ is one of those common phrases that gets thrown around Creative Writing classrooms, sometimes without too much explanation on what it actually means.

As a Creative Writing tutor and coach, I’ve always gone into detail with students and clients about what I mean when I say this – and now I’m going to explain it to you!

Some people get confused when they are faced with this phrase, as they think that it limits them to writing about the ‘real world’.

However, this is not the case. One can write about a world filled with dragons and monsters, and still be writing what they know. I’m not saying that one actually thinks they are in a dragon-filled land (although really, who am I to comment), but rather that writing what you know is not to be taken in such a literal way.

So what does it mean then?

It means that you should draw on your experiences to add value, realism and emotion to your writing. When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings he was not drawing on his experience of traversing mountainous lands with an elf beside him. He was drawing on his experience of:

  • Friendship and relationships
  • Storytelling
  • Geography
  • People
  • History
  • Religion

It was this knowledge that helped Tolkien write such an epic fantasy series.

Writing what you know, coupled with imagination, can equal a wondrous creation.

For example, you may be writing about a soldier leaving his family and joining the Second World War.
Now, chances are that you weren’t actually around during the Second World War, so how can you write what you know when it comes to this? Well, you may have experienced true heartbreak. You may have missed somebody dreadfully. You may know what it is like to do without or to focus on a smaller picture just so you can get through the day.

These are all elements of knowledge and experience that could add real depth to a character’s journey and story.

Writing what you know doesn’t mean that you can only write about a thirty year old who lives in the UK. It means that you should draw from all of your life experience, all of the emotion that has ever driven you, and pour it into your fictional work to create believable tales of depth and beauty.

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