“Wisdom begins in wonder” ~Socrates
One of the most common questions I get when I talk to a potential new client is around my expertise on a topic. It’s not just me, either. Many of my peers suffer the same question. There is a common misconception that a writer has to be an expert on a topic to write about it.
Trust me, if we were all experts, we’d probably ditch the day-to-day writing and go on the more lucrative speaking circuit, or we’d be charging $1000 per hour consulting fees. If someone is interested in hiring a writer/expert, my response is, you can’t afford that person.
What you want is a writer who is familiar with your industry, and one who took a hefty helping of curiosity at the character trait buffet.
First, let’s look at what I mean by familiar with your industry. I’ve written quite a bit about certain aspects of manufacturing. I’ve been to many different manufacturing facilities and walked their factory floors. I have contacts with people in various roles in manufacturing—marketing, plant manager, engineering, sales, distribution, customer service, field service, packaging, etc. I follow manufacturing news and news that impacts manufacturing.
Am I an expert in manufacturing? Hell no! But I guarantee you, no matter what topic you want me to write about, I have two or three people I can pull from my Rolodex who are in fact experts, and I can reach out to ask them some questions. I know enough to know what topics are relevant to the audience and what little bits and pieces are either not pertinent or are common knowledge.
I love what Ta-Nehisi Coates said in an interview with the New York Times about being called America’s foremost public intellectual. Coates said, “The best part of writing is really to educate yourself. I don’t want to be anybody’s expert. I came in to learn.”
Most writers will tell you something similar. It’s their craving for knowledge that drives them to write. The difference between a writer and everyone else is the keen desire to know more.
We’re the people who turn a touristy stop at the Welland Canal into an all-day expedition because we’re practically conducting an interview with the crew by yelling questions to them from the viewing platform as they wait for the water level to rise in the lock. We read every display at the museum to understand the history. We talk to the “ship spotters” who live along the locks and know more than you can imagine about almost every ship and crew going through them. We pout when our family finally makes us get back in the car to head to the next spot on the itinerary. We think about writing a book and vow to return by ourselves for maybe a week or two. That’s just a hypothetical example, of course..or not…I’m still a little bitter.
Whether it is non-fiction, fiction, or case studies, it doesn't matter. A writer’s innate curiosity makes them a better writer. Because we are comfortable asking questions, we do not need to be experts to write on a topic. We just need access to the experts.
Then, after we’ve talked to the experts and gained an understanding of how something works, we continue to follow our curiosity to the boots on the ground person. The person who uses the thing we’re writing about, or is affected by it. It’s these people who round out the story and turn it from a marketing or sales brochure into something someone actually wants to read.
I think that’s why I like writing about manufacturing so much. I spend much of my time talking to engineers, scientists, and roboticists. Some of the smartest people in the world, and they, like me, are by nature inquisitive people. We have a symbiotic relationship. They work tirelessly to create a solution to a problem, and I get to tell the world all about it.
So next time you are interviewing a writer for a project, don’t ask them if they are an expert on the topic at hand. Instead, ask them about their industry knowledge. Ask for relevant samples of their work to see if they are good at communicating an idea in a way that engages the reader. Finally, ask them if it’s a topic they are interested in and why. I’ve you’ve ignited their curiosity, chances are good you’ll be pleased with the final result.