Why “Write What You Know” Doesn’t Mean What You Think

by Marianne Stenger
Posted: June 01, 2015

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When starting out as a new writer, one piece of advice you are likely to glean from workshops, blogs, books and even other writers is that you should always “write what you know.”

If taken literally this advice can seem quite limiting, because you probably feel like most of your real life experiences aren’t all that interesting or worth writing about. But writer and author Nathan Englander recently put a new spin on this famous piece of advice in a video for Big Think.

Englander shares that at the beginning of his career when becoming a writer was still just a pipe dream, he felt like his childhood experiences didn’t really extend beyond sitting on the sofa watching sitcoms, and the idea of having to write what he knew was terrifying to him.

Did it mean he had to do rewrites of sitcoms? Would he be forever relegated to writing about his childhood memories of suburbia unless he ventured into the wilderness and experienced Hemmingway-style adventures?

He explains that writing what you know isn’t about relying on real events or firsthand experiences at all. It’s about capturing emotions and feelings that both you and your readers can relate to in some way.

Have you ever wanted something so bad you would do just about anything to get it? It might have been something as trivial as a new pair of shoes or video game console, but the fact that you have known that feeling of longing can help you write about anything from a prisoner’s longing for freedom to a lover’s despair when a relationship goes to pieces.

So while thinking about this advice in terms of writing solely about your personal experiences can be utterly paralysing, viewing it as an opportunity to tap into emotions like jealousy, joy, love or loss, can help you realise that you already have plenty of experience to build on. 


Marianne Stenger

Marianne Stenger

Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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