3 Tips on Writing What You Know (without confusing people)

Yes, we’re all told to write what we know. In a way, this is a redundant instruction because even if we write from the point of view of a worm, if the worm is thinking, we’re going to rely on our own experiences to give this worm thoughts. In other words, inhabiting a character is much like method acting, and describing almost anything requires a level of familiarity with that thing.

But what if we go too far in the other direction? We write such detailed scenes about something with which we are intimately familiar, that we lose the reader because we’re just too, well, familiar with the subject. And the reader isn’t.

Or, how about regionalisms? We’ve written something set in our little town, in our little corner of the universe, and surely, SURELY, everyone will know what this thingamajig is that we use all the time, right? RIGHT? Nope.

So, here are 3 tricks to make sure your readers aren’t left scratching their heads

1. Professional Lingo

Whether you’re a physician, officer of the law, lawyer, plumber, or an IT specialist, you’ve got an entire dictionary of professional terms under your belt. You know your deposition from your discon and you know what to do with your tag manager. How to avoid reader confusion and enhance their experience?

  1. Use professional lingo sparingly and, wherever possible, make sure the context explains what it is. If you can replace your special word with “banana” and the sentence still makes sense, then you did your job and taught the reader something new without them knowing it.
    • Example: After George got blotto and removed all his clothes in the town square, he was arrested for discon.
  2. Literally explain the word. You can have a character spell out the meaning to another character, pop in as the narrator and explain it, or rephrase it in the next sentence.
    • Example: “Whadaya mean, discon?” asked George. “I didn’t go to the disco! I went to the town square!”
      “That’s disorderly conduct, sir,” said Officer Krupke. “Off to the drunk tank with you.”
  3. Only use the terms to move the story along. If you’re doing it to show you really know your stuff, then it doesn’t belong.
  4. Ask someone to read it. If they’re confused, so will be 95% of your other readers.

2. Regionalisms

I was amazed to find out that not everyone in the country knows what an “ice” is, or a “split-level.” In a surprisingly lively social media post, I discovered that most people don’t have a broiler at the bottom of their ovens, and read some exceedingly entertaining anecdotes by people who realized what that drawer was–the hard way.

How to make sure you’re setting the scene properly without forcing your reader to do a Google search along the way?

  1. Context. Yep. That again.
    • Example: The drunk tank was very hot and muggy, and Officer Krupke felt bad for George. He bought a rainbow ice for himself and a lemon one for George and they ate their refreshing sweets in companionable silence.
  2. If you’re not sure whether something is specific to your neck of the woods or not, look it up. Just don’t call it Taylor Ham if you’re in South Jersey.
    • Example: “Boy, I could sure go for some Taylor Ham,” said George.
      “I don’t know what that is,” said Officer Krupke, as he unwrapped his Pork Roll sandwich.
  3. Ask someone (from another neck of the woods) to read it. Sometimes the terms are so common to you, it’s impossible to think they’re not widely known. You take it for granted that everyone will know the correct spelling of the New York Thruway, rather than think you’re a nincompoop who needs a better dictionary app.

3. Foreign Words and Traditions

Whether we have experience with another culture, are from another culture, or just really, really want to write about another culture, using the right terms can be a complicated balance. Do we always translate? Let the context speak? Put the foreign words in italics? The answer is, it depends.

  1. Using the word in the original language and then translating can be very effective. It helps to immerse the reader in the story without losing them. But, again, try to do this only if an English word is not specific enough and do it sparingly overall.
    • “Kto? Shto?” Who? What? asked George’s wife when he called her. Then she hung up.
  2. Our good friend, context:
    • Example: “It’s so hot, I’m schvitzing in here!” said George, wishing for another ice.
  3. Ask someone to read it. (come on, you knew that one already, right?)

Do you struggle with too much or too little of “writing what you know”? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. These are right in point, Emilya. It’s why when American Nora Tierney uses a British slang term she’s picked up living there, I try to ensure readers understand its context. Not everyone watches too much Masterpiece Mystery as I do!

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