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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Choosing a writer based on topic expertise..."Willing to learn" vs. "need to know"...

This afternoon, I booked a job for a series of articles on a topic about which I frequently write. In fact, I have done similar work for the same client in the past. I don't know if I would consider myself among the world's top ten most knowledgeable people on the topic, but I know my way around the subject and do a pretty good job with it.

As an aside, the client mentioned another project with which he could use a hand on a wildly different topic. It's a topic that most people don't know a lot about and, to be frank, it's something most people would probably find rather dull. He wanted to know whether or not I had any ideas for him on where he could find someone who knew a great deal about Topic X, because he was going to need some content.

I don't know much about Topic X. I do understand the basic concepts surrounding it, however. I also know that I am a good researcher. I also know that I won't let a potentially dull subject matter keep me away (the horror story about 70 articles on Topic Y can wait for another day, but trust me...I will write on topics from which others might flee).

I wrote back and referenced his query re: Topic X. Here is the portion of the email addressing that matter:

"I am going to level with you about Topic X. ... I know my way around [the basic concepts], but I wouldn't claim to be anything close to a 'Topic X expert.'

That being said, I am going to give you a brief sales pitch... You don't need a Topic X expert to write for you. You could, however, use a writer who will learn about Topic X and present factually accurate information in a compelling manner. I can do that.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is that I get to immerse myself in new topics and learn new things every day. It might seem strange to express an interest in learning about Topic X, but I am willing to do the homework and to produce the articles if you'd like.

I checked out the site and noticed you are running some [EDITED]. You're right--some fresh, unique material will probably help. If you'd like me to write it, I am ready to go. Let me know."

So, here is the big question... Am I right, or not?

I think I am. Well, I suppose that's obvious--I did say it, after all. Really, though, unless the topic is highly technical or requires a great deal of specialized expertise, I believe that a writer who has good research skills and is a quick study can do the job in most cases.

There are exceptions. As noted, if the titles need to focus on very precise things in a technical or nuanced way designed to appeal to other experts, you need someone familiar with the terrain to do the job right. I have turned down jobs on highly technical computer-related topics on multiple occasions because, although I could have researched the topics and written the articles, I didn't think I could deliver material that would be truly meaningful or helpful to an audience who lives and breathes those topics.

After looking over my client's site, however, I realized he didn't need scholarly work on Topic X from a learned expert. He needed solid, honest, well-written overviews of basic elements of Topic X. I don't know those (I'm starting to feel like singing some Same Cooke*) but I can learn them and write about them.

I see a lot of writers who specialize in a handful of topics. I think I would find that overlimiting. Although I certainly have areas of expertise that bring me a regular stream of clients, I enjoy the opportunity to tackle new issues and try not to lock myself into a "niche box." I consider myself a generalist, capable of handling most topics.

I know there are many people who disagree. That's why you can find extremely specialized writers. In the last few months I have covered...

Santa Claus and Santeria
Social Bookmarking and Social Security
Intaglios and Insecticides
The Cliffs of Moher and The Causes of Migraine Headaches

Along the way, I have done some interesting reading, learned a lot of great stuff and have written articles that keep getting thumbs up from my customers.

So, I obviously come down on the side of "willing to learn." Who believes that "need to know" is important for more general interest articles or materials that are not too highly technical? Also, who can tell me, as a writer, what they find particularly attractive or comfortable about limiting their work to a single genre? I'm not asking to start an argument... I really just want to hear some differing perspectives on all of this.

I'm off to take a few minutes to do some preliminary research on Topic X...

*Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about science books
Don't know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you loved me too
What a wonderful world this would be...