Write what you know

Each person has a wealth of experiences, memories, and sources of inspiration. Still, the applicability of the classic “write what you know” adage can seem a bit uncertain in all genres except for direct memoir. But there is a multitude of ways to apply world experience to your writing. 

Nonfiction

  • Everything must be based on fact and observations, be it the writer’s own or sources from research. In the first case, the writer has already been moved to write by an experience directly. In the latter, a writer’s own experience can help frame the events that they are depicting. A historian may not know what it is like to be in a tank under fire, but perhaps they have known mortal fear of another kind: a car crash, a robbery. Keeping these details in mind can make the writing seem more authentic.

Fiction

  • Writers may struggle to understand how to use their experiences as inspiration.  The key it to steal from your experience in bits and pieces. A vacation to Florida, for example, provides many sources of inspiration other than a scene where a character flies to Florida: the change in temperature leaving the cool plane into the too-hot terminal, the cognitive dissonance of travelling thousands of miles in hours, the dozens of accents and overheard conversations in an airport. Use these moments as inspiration.

Academic

  • How could any real life experience apply to writing a biology paper or a capstone essay? Isn’t academic writing by definition dry, boring, and devoid of personal experience? Not so! Different experiences give perspective from which to observe the environment around you. On a deeper level, this kind of experience gives you the most vital tool needed in academic writing– the ability to think analytically and judge a topic, passage, or experiment from as many perspectives as possible.

Don’t let the adage become confining. Instead, understand that it calls upon a writer to use the sum of their experiences and knowledge in innovative and evocative ways.

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