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Write What you Know

"Write What You Know"—Mark Twain’s Timeless Advice or is it an Outdated Mantra? The famous American author Mark Twain coined the phrase “Write what you know” in the late 19th or early 20th century. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, lived from 1835 to 1910 and is best known for his classic novels about life in the 1800s along the Mississippi River, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”


The Appeal of Writing What You Know

It is easy to understand why Twain’s advice to “write what you know” resonates with many writers. Writing about your own firsthand experiences, knowledge, and interests can feel natural and effortless in a way that writing about unfamiliar topics does not. When you are writing about something you know intimately, the words flow freely. There is no struggle to understand concepts or research details. You can vividly describe events, places, emotions, and more by relying on your memory and expertise.

Writing from personal experience also lends an air of authenticity that can be difficult to recreate when writing about a foreign subject. The specifics seem real and genuine because they are—you lived them. Readers may find it easier to immerse themselves in a story or relate to your perspective when they sense you have first-hand experience. The passion and conviction you have for subjects close to you often comes through in your writing as well.

Overall, drawing from your life experiences, knowledge base, and interests can feel natural and uncomplicated compared to stepping into uncharted territory. Mark Twain captured that sentiment with his widely quoted advice.


Potential Downside of Only Writing What You Know

While the familiarity of writing about your own experiences can make the writing process easier, adhering too strictly to the “write what you know” maxim can have some potential downsides as well.

It can limit the variety of stories and perspectives you can share. If a writer only focuses on their own direct experiences, they may miss opportunities to tell stories about people, places, time periods, or topics outside of their own background. Some of literature’s most beloved works came from authors imaginatively transporting themselves into lives very different from their own.

It can restrict a writer’s creativity. Strictly following real-life events or one’s own knowledge may hamper a writer’s ability to invent stories, characters, and fictional worlds that capture a reader’s imagination. Some level of imagination is crucial for fiction writing.

Audiences may crave fresh insights. Readers often appreciate discovering new perspectives, ideas, and information that takes them outside their own realm of knowledge. If a writer remains too tethered to their own experiences, they may not provide the sense of discovery readers seek. Expanding beyond the familiar requires research and immersion into new topics.

It focuses on writing about the past versus the future. Our own experiences are by definition in the past. To envision possible futures, invent speculative scenarios, or imagine technologies and worlds that do not exist yet require moving beyond the limits of current knowledge. Science fiction and innovative genres illustrate the power of imagination unbound by the known.

So, while writing what you know provides a solid starting point, expanding beyond those boundaries can open up new worlds of possibility for writers and readers alike. The most impactful writers balance their own experiences with exploration of the unfamiliar.

Expanding Beyond Your Experiences

While writing about your own experiences can provide you with easy content, sticking solely to what you know can limit your writing. Expanding beyond your own life requires using research, imagination, and empathy to explore new topics and perspectives.

Doing research allows you to learn about topics and backgrounds outside of your direct knowledge. Immersing yourself in research materials gives you the foundation to write authoritatively on subjects you didn’t previously know much about. Whether reading books and articles, interviewing experts, or traveling to gain first-hand experiences, research is key for widening your lens.

Using your imagination also enables you to write beyond your own life. You can envision fictional worlds, characters, and scenarios. Your imagination allows you to transcend your circumstances and write creative stories that feel authentic, even if you haven’t directly experienced them yourself. Practicing imaginative exercises like character sketches or scenario planning can flex your creative muscles.

Cultivating empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is another important skill. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes through thoughtful consideration of their experiences, struggles, and emotions can help you write diverse, inclusive characters and situations. Striving for empathy provides insight into the human condition that aids writing about topics beyond your personal range.

Rather than limiting your writing solely to your own experiences, use research, imagination, and empathy to expand the possibilities. This provides broader topics to engage readers while allowing you to grow as a writer. With an open mindset and some diligent work, you can write insightfully about many subjects, not just what you already know.


Balancing Writing What You Know and Exploring New


Twain’s advice to “write what you know” contains wisdom, but one should not follow it dogmatically. The most impactful writing often comes from balancing writing about familiar experiences with exploring new topics and ideas.

Writers can thoughtfully combine personal knowledge with fresh concepts using a few strategies.

Research extensively before writing about an unfamiliar topic. Immerse yourself in books, articles, films, and primary sources to become knowledgeable. Take detailed notes and keep track of sources.

Start with what you know, then expand outward. If you have a personal experience related to the topic, describe it briefly to ground the piece in a familiar context. Then broaden the scope.

Find a novel angle or perspective on a familiar topic. Examine it through a different cultural lens or spotlight an overlooked aspect. Make fresh connections between ideas.

Co-create work with an expert in another field to merge your strengths. Collaborate on a piece, combining both your expertise.

Focus on universal human experiences and themes. Our shared hopes, struggles, and emotions connect us all. These can provide a foundation, even when writing about unfamiliar subjects.

Learn by doing. You don’t have to be an expert to write. The act of creating a draft will expand your knowledge and reveal gaps for further research.

The best writing draws from both intimate firsthand experiences and new information gleaned through curiosity and study. With care not to present inaccurate information, writers can thoughtfully blend the known and unknown.

 Excerpt from The Journey from Manuscript to Print: A Guide to Publishing Your Book by Ann Aubitz

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