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Five ways to look after yourself when writing from personal experience

Award-winning non-fiction writer Katie Goh shares tips and advice for looking after yourself when writing about your own experiences.

Genre: Biography, Non-fiction, Wellbeing
Audience: Adults

Last updated: 06 July 2023

Writing is powerful. Through words we can relive experiences, represent challenging ideas and foster connections with readers. But writers who are exploring potentially distressing subjects in both non-fiction or fiction can also be vulnerable to retraumatising themselves if they are writing from their own personal experiences. Here are a few tips on tackling writing about personal and sensitive subjects.

Figure out who you're writing for

If you want to write about a previous personal experience or a difficult subject, ask yourself if it's something you want other people to read. Therapists often suggest writing as a way of processing complex emotions, and writing about past personal events can be cathartic, but that can be a different type of writing than what you would like to be published and read by strangers. As a starting point, ask yourself if you're ready to think about your subject as a narrative and if you're ready to work with an editor.

Take your time

When I was an editor of personal essays, I frequently heard from writers who wanted to explore a personal experience right after it had happened. Often the writer was still too close to the event, something that it often takes an objective eye to recognise. Take your time to understand exactly what you want to write. Why write and publish it now? What do you want to communicate to a reader? How are you going to turn a personal experience into a narrative? Answering these questions takes plenty of thinking time and shouldn't be rushed.

Make good use of second readers

Unless you're self-publishing, you'll probably work with an editor on your writing. While good editors take their writers’ welfare into consideration, their primary focus is on the craft of your writing. Ask a trusted friend to read your writing and speak with them about how you're feeling about representing a personal experience in writing. Other writers who have published autobiographical work may also have advice on how to protect yourself as a writer, both during the writing process and after a work is published.

Remember, you're writing from your own perspective

Writers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, are often thought to represent more than just their own subjective perspective. For example, there can be pressure for a mixed-race author to represent a general 'mixed-race experience' or a queer author to represent all facets of queer identity.

This comes from authors from marginalised backgrounds being tokenized within publishing, and thankfully as more authors from a diverse range of backgrounds are published, this is changing. However, it's common to internalise this need to represent more than yourself. Keep in mind that you can only represent your own specific subjective experience and avoid generalisations that come from attempting to represent entire demographics.

Changing your mind is normal

Publishing is potentially forever and it can be scary to cement your thoughts and opinions in writing. However, everyone – yes, even writers – changes their minds over time. You can always revisit an experience you've previously written about from a new, older perspective, and most topics are near limitless in their possible scope.

Think about your favourite writer from the past: it would be boring if they maintained the exact same opinion from their first book to their last. It’s normal for your opinion and perspective to change over time, and that's something to embrace.