Write What You (Don’t) Know

As a Professional Writer Who Gets Paid to Write, one of the things I’ve learned in my storied, let’s be generous, career is that the “write what you know” rule is total hogwash.

Well, maybe that’s a little strong; but I’ve learned that even someone with as little formal training as me, when given a topic, can just run with it, whether they actually know anything about the topic or not. I learned about this early on in my career, when I had an internship with an interior decorating magazine, and I was paid to write things like—this is absolutely true—”The Top 10 Dining Room Chairs,” or “How to Maintain Your Hardwood Floor.” I was dimly aware that chairs were things you sit on, and that floors were things you sit on when you don’t have any chairs, but with a little research (and a LOT of caffeine), I was able to write something that I could then find in the supermarket, and point out and shout loudly to everyone “I WROTE THAT ARTICLE ABOUT CHAIRS; THAT WAS ME!!”

I wanted to mention this because I’ve found that my complete in-expertise in everything is still not a stumbling block, even as a games writer. I’ve recently started writing for a new indie military strategy sim. They wanted comedy, and comedy I can do—but beyond that, the only thing I know about strategic warfare is nothing. I didn’t let that stop me, though; I worked with what I do know and researched what I don’t, and I’m now enjoying a great relationship with the company.

And that’s not all—I’ve also recently done a small amount of writing work for a social football sim. Those readers who are my nephews no doubt find this hilarious, because just a couple of weeks ago, we were watching a game of football together, and I confused the symbol on the Arizona Cardinals’ helmets with Angry Birds. Literally everything I know about football is from Madden ’94, but it didn’t matter; I was still able to do the job, and do it well.

My point is this: write what you know, when you have the freedom and capacity to do so. There’s nothing easier and more fun and rewarding than that. But don’t turn away a project just because you don’t know anything about the topic. You can learn, and what you can’t learn, you can gloss over and hope someone else reads it before some poor old lady ruins her nice hardwood floor.



  1. I very much agree with this. I always see the academic writing I do — which is all about research and discovering what was hitherto unknown — as very much related to the fiction I write as well.

    Also the discovery of something new is the main pleasure of writing for me. The writer P.H. Newby put it like this: “I compose straight on to the typewriter, and the first early morning tappings give me the same lift as a guard’s whistle or a ship’s siren. Another journey has begun.”

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