Wanted: writer with background in llama farming, pre-Mayan law, astrophysics, and craniosynostosis

By Renae Gregoire | Lessons learned

Aug 06
Does your writer need to be an SME

Does your writer or editor need to be a subject matter expert?  

Today, spurred on by a Craigslist post, I want to address an issue that surfaces regularly, for me, during the work of seeking work, and, for you, during the work of hiring a writer or editor: whether your writer or editor needs expertise in a topic to write or edit well.

The impetus for this article: an ad for a writer on Craigslist

Here’s the ad copy that sparked this blog post:

Writer Experienced with Forklifts Wanted. I am looking to hire the services of a freelance writer who has some form of experience with forklifts. The writer will showcase his or her knowledge of operating a forklift by providing unique and informative articles. Please reply with details about your experience.

Now, although I’m sure that more than a handful of writers have at one time or another worked a forklift, what are the chances that such a writer is looking for work right now? Are they reading Craigslist? More specifically, are they reading Craigslist in the “Gigs” section, and in the “Writing Gigs” section, and in the poster’s particular city? Unlikely.

Does a writer need subject matter expertise?

Although the forklife ad is actually a far-fetched example, it is not uncommon for people looking to hire a writer to “prefer” (or even demand) experience in the subject. No kidding -- at one time or another in the 15+ years I’ve been in business, I’ve been asked whether I have direct experience either in the field of or in writing about:

  • Yoga classes
  • Gas-powered generators
  • Plastic surgery
  • Office cleaning services
  • Cleaning fuel injectors
  • Horse farms
  • IT workstations
  • Cell phone transmission towers
  • Buddhist monks
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
  • Customer loyalty programs
  • Elevators
  • CAD programs
  • CRM programs
  • Security systems in office complexes
  • Woodcarving
  • Peanut allergies

Now, although I've been writing and editing professionally for many years, and for many more years “on the side” before that, I cannot say I have direct experience with, or that I have written or edited content about, those topics--not yoga classes, not elevators, not cell phone transmission towers, not elevators, not forklifts.

But does lack of direct experience with such topics mean that I, and other writers, cannot write or edit content about them?

No, not at all. In fact, hiring a writer or editor who lacks direct experience can bring a new level of objectivity, fresh thinking, and clarity to your content.

Here's what a good content writer will do.

The added clarity you gain comes from the fact that your writer’s job is not only to “write.” It is to help you communicate your message, your value proposition, in language and in ways that target readers understand. A really good writer goes even further by connecting dots for your readers.

A good writer connects the dots between what you offer and what buyers want.

She will identify and communicate connections between

1) What readers think and know now,
2) What readers want to know and accomplish, and
3) What your company, product, or service offers.

To uncover those connections, your writer will conduct research and interviews. She will ask questions and challenge assumptions. She will raise objections. She will put herself in your prospective customer’s shoes to see how best to align their needs with your offers. And she will do this whether she has worked a forklift before, taken a yoga class before, carved a piece of wood before--or not.

Here's what a good content editor will do.

An editor, on the other hand, acts as “first reader,” reading the content to see if the writer did her job well and, if not, what fixes are needed. Your editor will ask big-picture questions while reading the content:

  • Is the organization apparent and sound?
  • Is the pace appropriate?
  • Does the content accomplish its purpose?
  • Are the introduction and summary complete?
  • Is the background appropriate?
  • Are graphics supportive?

Does your editor need personal knowledge of the subject to edit well?

If the content is meant to speak to readers at the novice or introductory levels, then no; your editor does not need subject matter knowledge. And if the editor is smart and a quick study, then she may not even need prior knowledge for editing advanced or technical content.

For instance, many years ago, I worked as a developmental editor for a publishing house that specializes in books for programmers. I remember one chapter of one book about the compiler, the compiler pipeline, and ways that programmers can directly and indirectly manipulate the abstract syntax tree (AST).

Does your writer need to be an SME?

Before doing that work, I had “heard of” a compiler, but that was as far as my knowledge went. Now, however, I know what a compiler does, what the pipeline is, what the first and subsequent steps of the pipeline do, and that one must be a confident, savvy, and knowledgeable programmer to attempt such work.

Despite my lack of direct knowledge of or experience with the subject, I could tell that the author needed a few fixes to make the text usable and easy to read. For instance, he'd have to:

  • Use and label graphical call-outs consistently
  • Reorganize the numerical headings within the chapter, e.g., changing 6.3 to 6.2.1
  • Lighten up on the commentary, whose tone readers might object to

I also should point out that although I could edit the text, I could not edit the code in the chapter; not being a programmer myself, there's no way I could tell whether a given packet of code was right or appropriate. But I could edit the text surrounding the code, making sure that it adhered to style and was consistent, clear, understandable, and correct.

In the same way, I could not write, nor would I feel confident in editing, complex medical or scientific texts that include chemical and mathematical notations, as I would not know whether a yield sign was in the wrong place or if a stated number of atoms was correct or if a differential equation was written accurately. Many specialized writers and editors are available to handle such topics; if you need help in those areas let me know. I'll point you to more qualified others.

Which is better:
A forklift-operating non-writer? Or a good writer who’s never operated a forklift?

But for content of a general nature, for general readers -- such as a brochure promoting UAV development, web content describing yoga classes, or a PowerPoint about forklifts -- a sharp, talented writer or editor, even one without background, is more than qualified.

What if you happen to find an excellent writer who specializes in writing about forklifts? Then, by all means, if you like her in all other ways, use that writer! She may not have to spend as much time on research, which may save you money. However--and this is the point--finding such a writer may not be easy. And in that case, a sharp writer without forklift experience will serve you just as well.

Think of it this way: would you rather use a not-so-very-good writer or even non-writer who’s worked a forklift, or an exceptional, experienced writer who hasn’t? I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer the latter!


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About the Author

Renae Gregoire is a marketing writer, editor, critical thinker, obsessive questioner, and excellent-results deliverer. Although writing is her talent, empathy is her Super Power; she combines both into a potent formula for creating content experiences that lead more people to YES!

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