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Writing

How to ‘Write What You Know’: 4 Ways to Write From Experience

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

“Write what you know” is a piece of writing advice that many aspiring authors are probably sick of hearing. Writing about a subject you are familiar with, however, is an excellent starting point for both nonfiction and fiction writers.

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What Does ‘Write What You Know’ Mean?

Writing about what you know can take many different forms depending on your writing process and the sort of creative writing project you’re working on. For non-fiction writers, the phrase can be applied by writing a memoir based on your own experiences and real-life stories, or writing about familiar subject matter. When writing fiction—whether it be science fiction short stories or an epic historical fiction novel—writing what you know means finding aspects of your story and characters that you deeply relate to.

4 Ways to Write What You Know

Writing what you know at its simplest level can involve writing about your own life and first-hand personal experiences. If you’re writing fiction or pieces outside of your life experience, it can take a bit more know-how and hard work to find how you relate to your subject matter. Here are some tips for writing what you know:

  1. Follow emotional truths. Often as a freelance writer, you work on assignments that cover material well outside your personal experiences. As a good writer, it’s your job to find a way into the material. One way to do this is to focus on the emotional realities of the characters in your piece and look for common ground. J.K. Rowling has very little in common with the fantastical life of Harry Potter, but that doesn’t mean she can’t relate to the universal experience of a teenager trying to find their way in the world during their high school years. As you start writing, especially if you’re a first-time nonfiction writer or are tackling your first novel, look for emotional common ground with your characters.
  2. Reflect on a period of time in your life. Take some time apart from your work to think about a specific time in your life. This can help you find a way into a piece you are working on. Fiction writers like Ernest Hemingway often take direct inspiration from autobiographical events then loosely fictionalize them to use in a novella or full-length novel. First-time fiction writers might find that taking a specific event from their lives and fictionalizing it will demystify the fiction-writing process and help them break through writer’s block.
  3. Freewrite. Freewriting about your own life, whether it be in journal form or something more abstract, is a great way to figure out connections between your personal life and your writing. At first you may not see how deeply personal your work is because, on the surface, it feels so separate from your personal life. Taking the time to write about your writing and the way it intersects with your life can help you see links and forge a more personal connection with your work.
  4. Place yourself in your character’s shoes. If you’re having a tough time relating to your work, take a moment to fully inhabit one of your characters and think about how you would approach whatever situation they find themselves in. You’ll always want to empathize with your characters, but setting aside a specific time to reflect on a character’s motives can help you understand them more deeply. What would you do if you found yourself in your character’s position? In what ways is it reminiscent of situations from your past?
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