Write what you DON’T know!

By Jim Denney

Saul Bellow once said, “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” I know that’s true in my case. I’m a writer today because I wanted to emulate my literary heroes. Maybe you know that urge as well.

If you want to be a writer, one of the first things you must do is forget all the bad writing advice you’ve heard. One of the worst “rules” of writing ever inflicted on us — and you’ve probably heard it countless times — is “Write what you know.” That little poison pill has stifled more imaginations and ruined more writers than all the rejection slips in the history of literature.


Ursula K. Le Guin at a meet-the-author session at Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 2004. Photo taken by Hajor, July 15, 2004, released under cc.by.sa and/or GFDL.

Here’s some better advice: Write what you don’t know. Write what you are curious about, passionate about, and always thinking about. Write from your imagination. Write from your wonder. Write from your desire to explore and create and discover. Science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin once observed (with delicious irony): 

As for “write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist.

The best way to write what you truly know is to let go of rules and the fear that you are “doing it wrong.” Shed your inhibitions, plunge into the depths of your imagination, and create a fictional reality that is known only to you. Then write everything you know about that imaginary reality. You don’t have to write about the experiences and memories of your everyday life. Instead, dream up new experiences, imagine unremembered memories, and explore undiscovered realms.

Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964; author of Piano Stories) observed, “Pero no creo que solamente deba escribir lo que sé, sino también lo otro.” (“Yet I do not think I should write only about what I know, but also of the other.”) The other, the unknown, the undiscovered country — that, too, is the rightful province of every writer.

So write freely and boldly — and in the process of writing what you don’t know, you’ll come to know so much more than you ever imagined.

God bless and inspire you as write for Him.




Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.

And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.




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