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    Do you agree with this philosophy? To what extent?

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    Your writing shouldn’t be limited to what you know. It should only be limited to what you can know. There’s nothing quite like personal experience to impart to your novel to make it more real, but when that fails, the next best thing is to go to the people with experience. Research research research. It’s not the really the solution that fixes all problems, but it’s extremely imortant regardless.


    I’ve never totally bought into this line of reasoning. A wide range of life experience is definitely important, but that’s really just so you can extrapolate it to other situations. If people could only write about things they had personally experienced, I’m not sure there would be more than a fraction of the literature that exists today.

    Unless, you know, Tolkien spent his summer holidays fighting orcs and George Lucas and his left-wing militant pals blew up space stations and shit back in the late 60’s.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    You don’t have to write about your EXACT life experiences, just some of the things you’ve learned on your own to use as a basis. Tolkien learned about war (hated machines, loved horses, hated losing friends and stuff) and we see that reflected in his work.

    Although I think Lucas did actually blow up some space stations… I dunno.

    I agree with you anyway, so w/e.


    @sansafro: Yeah, that’s exactly what I think.

    Of course, there are always things you can draw on, I suppose.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009 edited

    I think Write What You Know IS excellent advice, but it is NOT:
    a) a golden, unbreakable rule; or
    b) a literal statement.

    I think the statement “write what you know” is a.. parable? Metaphor? Thingy, which is designed to be extended beyond the pithy little epithet that it is. My personal philosophy is that “write what you know” actually refers to “learn to apply your experience of the condition of being human (emotional/irrational/faced with a tough decision/facing up to enemies larger than you/being in love/heartbreak/et cetera) to a new, different situation.

    As sansafro said, it’s more about learning to extrapolating what you “know” (i.e. have experienced about being human, with regards emotions, psychology, reactions, etc.) to a situation that does not exist or to one that you are unfamiliar with. Actually, applying old knowledge in new ways or in unfamiliar sitiations is a marker of sapience as distinguished from sentience. Extrapolating that to writing (art imitating life) seems like common sense to me.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    I think it helps and certainly gives a more authentic feel to the writing. Take Jacques, he writes so convincingly about ships and sailing, because he used to be a seaman.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    I think that your strongest writing comes from actually experiencing something firsthand, a battle, whatever. That doesn’t say you can’t have strong writing from other sources, but the best is actually experiencing it.

    But I’m just playing a little devil’s advocate.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    I was basically going to post what Taku posted, only he wrote it far more eloquently. It’s not necessarily that you draw from your limited pool of knowledge and never step outside it, it’s more that you learn to extrapolate your human experience into new situations.

    Although I think there is a literal aspect as well- you really have to know something before you can truly write deeply about it. Tolkien may not have spent his time killing orcs, but he took the time to really understand the elvish/Gondorian/hobbit/orcish/etc. cultures before he sat down and wrote publishable literature about them. And this actually ties into Llcorp2’s new article, about how a story’s world must be internally consistent- Bitterwood fails because we’re expected to use the Real World, but the book breaks all the rules, because the author clearly didn’t do enough research to work out exactly what would and would not work- or at least fails to express that to the reader.

    • CommentTimeSep 5th 2009

    What defines what we “know?” Everything we know is based on our own observations and the conclusions that arise from them. Together, these make up our experiences. However, because we constantly draw conclusions subconsciously, those conclusions may not be correct. How many times have you formed a first impression of a person, only to have it completely blown away once you get to know them? How many times have you assumed a person’s motivations/reasoning? Before the advent of science, people observed that objects in the sky moved across it, so they concluded that everything in the universe revolved around the earth. And so on.

    I think using the word “know” is a bit misleading. Knowledge implies objectivity whereas experience is entirely subjective. As writers draw mostly on their own experiences, writing is inherently a subjective thing, which is one of its greatest strengths and weaknesses. We write to allow others to experience things they might not otherwise experience. These readers observe what we have written, ultimately draw their own conclusions, and thus come to experience that which was written about. This experience may not be as credible or comprehensive compared to firsthand experience, but it is still an experience nonetheless. This is why research is such an invaluable tool when writing anything not directly familiar to us, and why thorough research enables those who have not directly experienced something to write about it convincingly.

    So, as far as I’m concerned, “Write what you know,” means “Do thorough research on the stuff you plan to write about if you don’t have any firsthand experience.”


    There are some things you can fudge it with. For instance, I have never fallen in love with anyone, and as anyone who has fallen in love knows, it is almost impossible to translate it into words. “You’ll know when it happens” is not very exciting. But you can imagine what it would be like, and, if you’ve seen it in your parents or friends, you at least have an outsider’s view of it. So say Dick and Jane fall in love. I don’t need to have everything from Jane’s point of view – I can have her best friend Sally tell us about it by being bitter about the fact that she hasn’t fallen in love yet, and Jane looks so happy… cut to the outward description of love here.

    So there are some things that you might not have experience with, but you can work around those things and still have a good story.


    Only slightly. I can write about a murder without having seen an actual murder. Likewise, I can write about a country without having been there. However, some things (such as a country) have to be properly researched, otherwise you look like an ass.

    So it all depends, really. Feeding off your own experience is a good tool to have, but it’s not nessesary.


    I think most things can be written without experiencing them, but some things connot be told anywhere near as well with only other peoples’ experiences. Especally things involving emotions. e.x. I could not write well about the death of a close friend, or be authentic and accurate to the feelings that that would cause. Not that goung through such experiences is a good thing, but I think I make my point.