“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

Why You Should Write What You DON’T Know

“Write what you know.”

We hear it all the time as writers, just as often as we hear “kill the adverbs,” “don’t disregard the first draft,” and all of the other common tips about writing. But while writing what you know is definitely useful in one sense, writing what you don’t know can be just as rewarding.

Here’s why.

Why You Should Write What You DON'T Know

Why You Shouldn’t Write What You Know

If we all only wrote what we knew, we’d limit ourselves so much. We’d be confined to only writing characters based on people we know, setting stories in places we’ve been, and plots with problems we’d faced before. If we could only write what we knew, we’d only be writing our stories. And after a while, we’d run out.

Writing what you don’t know allows you to step into somebody else’s shoes and see the world from their point of view.

Just because you’ve never been homeless doesn’t mean you can’t write about a homeless man. It’s a chance to use your imagination and think about how they might feel. Have you ever heard that writers are often empathetic people? This is why.

I know why you might be afraid to step into what you DON’T know. You might be scared you will get it “wrong.”

What if you write a book set in France and someone from France happens to read it and gets mad about the details you messed up?

What if your main character is deaf and someone who is deaf is outraged at the misrepresentation?

How to Write What You DON’T Know and Not Offend EVERYONE

Here’s the good news: there are ways you can write what you don’t know and still get the details right. Here are three ways to do it:

1. Research

The internet is a fantastic resource for everything you need to know about anything.

There are articles and message boards and entire websites dedicated to just about every subject.

Spend a few hours browsing Google and you’ll be surprised at just how much information you can get without ever having to leave your desk chair.

2. Experience it firsthand

This might be a little trickier because of either money problems or just the fact that it’s not possible to experience everything you’re writing about.

But, if you can, visit the setting of your book. Go to France and take pictures and write about what you see.

You can take a few days to “become” your character.

Maybe she doesn’t speak for whatever reason. If so, go for a day without speaking and record your difficulties and experiences along the way.

3. Talk to people

People are often very willing to help you out if they know you’re truly interested in what they have to say.

I have blogging friends all over the world who would be more than happy to explain what life’s like in England or Australia.

Ask whoever you can for help, and if you don’t personally know of anyone, try sending out a tweet or Facebook post with an invitation to talk to you. I’m sure you’ll find someone in the end.

What are your tricks to writing what you don’t know? Let us know in the comments section.


Let’s step out of our comfort zones for a little bit. Take fifteen minutes to write about something you’ve never written about. This something has to be something you don’t know, too.

Use one or more of the three tricks above to help you if you get stuck.

When you’re time is up and if you wish, post your practice in the comments. Be sure to give your fellow writers some love, too.

Have fun!

About The Magic Violinist

The Magic Violinist is a young author who writes mostly fantasy stories. She loves to play with her dog and spend time with her family. Oh, and she's homeschooled. You can visit her blog at themagicviolinist.blogspot.com. You can also follow The Magic Violinist on Twitter (@Magic_Violinist).

  • Thank you for the excellent tips.

    One of my problems with the Write-What-You-Know philosophy is that my life has been quite uneventful and I don’t perceive the things I’m interested in as being interesting to many people outside those disciplines (painting, writing, walks, the Flint Hills). So I’ve struggled with the idea of turning those things into engaging fiction.

    So these tips are helpful in revealing ways to learn more about things that would be more interesting to potential readers.

    One thing I’d add to your list is taking classes if possible. Even one class is helpful in learning something new.

    • Susan Barker

      You know, so many things can happen to you when you go for a walk. Or you could be a lost child in a park wondering what to do.
      You could be an artist who paints pictures with hidden messages of sorts in them. Which would make them worth alot in the right hands.

      Just a couple thoughts for stories that seem to have everyday things in them.

      • Susan,

        Thanks for the ideas and the encouragement. Both are always welcome.

        I have used the something-happens-during-a-walk idea in several places, but never as the crux of a story. I’ll have to give that some thought.

        As for putting hidden messages into a painting…. What an intriguing idea!

        Thanks again for your thoughts. Best wishes,


    • Julie Mayerson Brown

      I agree, Carrie. Have always been happy that my life is “normal” and relatively “dull.” Good thing my imagination is off the charts crazy! Best of luck 🙂

  • Research is key. Like you said, not everyone can go to France. But you can explore it from home. I’ve recently found that Google maps is a very useful tool, because you can literally drive the streets and see it for yourself.
    Good article, although I think using what you know is a great way to write a story. In my writing, I tend to mix both methods.
    Writing = conflict. I know that’s another one of those things they always tell you about :). If you have conflict, it doesn’t matter where you got it from.
    I wish you the best with your writing, Magic Violinist!

  • Renette Steele

    He was ready to tee off but had know idea about this strange came they call golf. Talk of birdies and pars, eagles and bogies all he knew was he was suppose to get this little ball in the cup 200 yards or more away and the sign said he had three tries to gt it thee. They told him to swing hard the first time and watch the ball. It was to small to see where it went but they all said he had a great shot.

    Now i shall go ask an expert in the field (my husband) to read this and see if i came any where close. once you have your basic idea down you can find people who do know and ask their opinion.

  • Susan Barker

    Research is golden. Even if it’s to research the objects in your story. You should make sure your objects will work the way you say they will in the story, or it won’t be believable. Like the guns in the movies that never run out of bullets, or they shoot 200 rounds at each other and nobody’s shot.

    • Julie Mayerson Brown

      How often do you read a book and realize the author missed a beat in her/his research? I once referenced a “shotgun” without having any idea how big it was or how it worked. Thankfully somebody in my critique group corrected me.

      • Susan Barker

        It happens often. I watch a movie of a gunman holding a pistol that holds one ten round clip, and you count out fifteen or more shots when the camera never left the gunman. The gunman doesn’t reload. It’s just one scene with a huge error for any gun enthusiast.
        The explosive car turning over scenes are old news too. See how often that happens in real life. But, it does create action and excitement. 🙂

  • Colleen Risdahl-Hamilton

    Writing what I know is always where I start in my writing, however writing about what I DON’T know is also kind of a liberating idea. I’ve started to explore this a bit to fill in details here and there if I’m writing a story or vignette for an assignment. I find using the internet to research details, pull images to draw on for inspiration and get my imagination flowing helps me to “dig in”. I ask myself questions that I would ask if I were the reader… if I can’t satisfy my own questions, it won’t fly. I’ve been fortunate in my work to travel a lot, so pulling from those memories of time, place, culture, person, season, etc are powerful tools to generate character, mood and setting. I guess I’ll see as time goes on if my work “stands up” to the reader test!

  • It was late at the Valentine’s night. Still, I hung out with a few friends at the local quay. The desultory conversation seemed to not make me stay any longer. Eventually I stood up and walked toward the end of the road near the riverside. I felt isolated and devastated despite being surrounded with people and their bothersome laughter. I would shut myself off from this chaotic world if I could.

    From out of nowhere, the darkness came cover me as I was utterly embraced. I was too scared to know what was happening. I even couldn’t breathe. Some seconds later, I realized that I’d just been hugged by a stranger. The intense fear kept lingering inside me although that stranger−who held a “Free Hugs” sign−strived to explain what he’d done was just part of the Free Hugs Campaign.

    After all, there was no comfort, nor any delight in that hug.

  • Ken Casey

    My grandson describes me as: “He has a beard, and he googles everything.”

    • Julie Mayerson Brown

      cute 🙂 True for most of us!

  • DizzyDengel

    For me, the easiest and funnest thing to write about is what you know, but then add either major or minor differences, so you can relate but experience something new at the same time.
    I’ll use Harry Potter as an example, since everyone does.
    We’ve all been to school, right? And Harry goes to a school. The twist is that the school is for people with MAGIC. It’s exciting, familiar, and new, all at the same time.

  • LilianGardner

    I enjoy writing fiction, about our world with names and characters I invent, but are true to life. I choose a geographical section of a map, make a graph and change the names of town, roads, lakes, rivers and other places. It keeps my mind fixed on the locations in the story.
    I write fantasy for children and dip into anything my mind explores. I don’t indulge in macabre tales or any horrofic stories.
    I make a list of my characters with a short description of their physical aspect, age and a particular/peculiar habit which distinguishes them.

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  • Julie Mayerson Brown

    I write what I DON’T know, most of the time. My blogs, articles, and essays are based on my life and experience, but for fiction, it’s all my IMAGINATION AND RESEARCH. My current protagonist is a victim of sexual abuse (thankfully, I am not!). I’ve studied, read, and researched, which is what helps me draw a character who is believable and put her in circumstances that are realistic. The only downside is that research can be distracting. I get so fascinating by my exploration that I end up with less time and energy to write.

  • I think is valid to write about something you don’t have much knowledge about, as long as you put it as it is, or really live it a little bit before.

    Very pleasing your writing style, congrats!

    Peterson Teixeira

  • Mary Farmer

    I remember reading an article about Diana Gabaldon in Writer’s Digest where she said precisely the same thing. She says you can educate yourself about anything you want to write about, and make it believable. In fact, back when she wrote the first Outlander book, she’d never been to Scotland. Yet she describes that country with such clarity and detail that you’d think she grew up there.

  • NerdOfAllTrades

    As a writing tip, I think this is fantastic.

    As a fifteen-minute practice, I think that this misses the mark. I know that you want every post to have a fifteen-minute practice, but how much research, or experiencing, or brain-picking can I do in fifteen minutes?

    I’ll keep this tip in mind, but I’m skipping the practice on this one.

  • JazzFeathers

    I’ve always thought that ‘write what you know’ is a very good advice, but misleading. Because of course, what you don’t know, you can learn. Then you’ll know it, and only THEN will you be able to write about it.

    So yes, I do think we should only write what we know, because that’s the only thing we can write abut with any accusacy and in a realistic way… but this doesn’t mean we should only write what we know ‘at the moment’ 😉
    If I had only written what I knew, I would have never written my current project.

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