How to Write What You Know

Written by Olivia Smit, Little Lamb Books Intern

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the familiar writing advice “Write What You Know”. This particular piece of advice is one of the first things I was formally taught in a creative writing class, but it can be very limiting if not interpreted correctly!

At the beginning of June, I had the privilege of attending a writing seminar hosted by YA author Maggie Stiefvater. Ms. Stiefvater brought up this piece of advice, but defined it as an emotional truth rather than a literal one. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean you can only write about experiences that you have directly, physically encountered or understood. After all, then we wouldn’t have any sci-fi or fantasy stories, and chances are, we’d be missing out on a lot of our most beloved adventure stories, too. Even our contemporary stories can be strengthened by including moments of conflict that we writers may not have personally experienced in their entirety.

If we take this advice as an emotional truth, however, the scope of the topics about which you are permitted to write broadens drastically. When seen through this lens, this advice can be more loosely applied: for example, if you have ever been angry, use your personal experience (what you know of anger) to write an argument in your story. You don’t need to have experienced the exact same circumstances as your character to write the scene accurately – use your emotional knowledge and experience to make the story come alive, and research and fact-checking will fill in the gaps.

Last year, our beloved family dog passed away unexpectedly, and I spent several weeks afterwards grieving the loss. If I followed the writing advice “write what you know” literally, I could only use this experience to write about a character who experiences the emotions of grief after losing a pet. However, when understanding this advice as an emotional truth, I can take my experience of grief and apply it to other scenarios, too. Anytime a character experiences loss, I can take what I know of loss and write a scene that is believable and compelling.

Readers can tell when we, as writers, are making things up. They can tell the difference between an emotional truth and a falsehood, and while research helps, writing about an emotion you haven’t experienced is almost impossible to do accurately. However, if you nail the emotional truth, readers won’t notice that you haven’t experienced the factual truth (as long as you do your research)!

Have you heard this writing advice before? What are your thoughts on the idea of emotional truth? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comment section of our Little Lamb Books Facebook page.