Wednesday, August 26, 2015

[DON'T] Write What You Know

by Charlotte Levine Gruber

Ten years ago I began my writing journey. Crime fiction is my genre of choice, so it was no surprise to me when my emerging story headed down the dark path. 

Hartwig HKD
The Self + The Path by Hartwig HKD

When I approached the soggy middle, I joined a local writers group. The speaker that day was a creative writing professor who said, “Write what you know.”

I thumbed through my pages (yes, a hard copy).
  • My protagonist was a single dad with two teenagers. 
  • Another POV character was a teenage thug. Also male.
  • I had no real clue how they fit together.

I went to the writers group a few more times and learned how to punctuate dialogue, but pretty much didn’t know how to fix my project. I began another story, and this time I followed the professor’s advice and wrote what I know. But of course, what I know isn’t really that interesting. I have an MBA and worked in bankruptcy. But I filled pages and pages of bankruptcy information. 

Good thing I have beta readers and critique partners making snarky comments. Even my sister confessed to skipping those blocks of text.

Now I’ve been writing long enough to question that first visiting professor. He may have been talking about beginning writers, or, gasp, perhaps I misunderstood. 

Because really?

The Boy Who Lived by Beth

Is JK Rowling the boy who lived?
Stephanie Meyers in love with a vampire?
Or EL James… well…let’s not go there.

The Creative Writing Director at Harvard University, Bret Anthony Johnson, argues against writing what you know. He states; 

Read Johnston’s article—it’s enlightening. 

As a genre fiction junkie, I often feel that literary works put out by Iowa graduates are beautiful and memorable but I still prefer Janet Evanovich or Stephen King.

Even so, I happen to agree with Johnston. Writing what you know is not the same as knowing what you write. Research is key, as is transporting yourself to the page. Or more specifically, transferring your emotions to your character, or learning to see the world through their eyes.

Photo by Dawn Ellner

I shelved that first manuscript. In a rewrite of my second project, CODE OF SILENCE, Hank Phillippi Ryan told me, “It’s not enough to describe this scene. You have to BE Andrea.”

Of course, Hank is right. Seeing the world through your character’s eyes allows your reader to do the same. Engaged readers don’t want to put the book down. 

So write what you know how to feel

But the rest? Make it up. And have fun doing it. At a writers' convention Jonathan Mayberry bragged that he got to go to work everyday in his pretend world with his pretend friends. 

And what could be better than that?


  1. Love this line! "Writing what you know is not the same as knowing what you write." Great post, Charlotte!

    In gratitude,
    Marissa xo

  2. Indeed, indeed. I agree with Jonathan...there's not much better than hanging out with my fictional friends in other worlds! Thank you for this article, Charlotte!

    ~ Olivia J. Herrell

  3. Thank you, I'm in process of writing my first query and pitch. Your article helps.