Take the 2-minute tour ×
Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I guess that title sounds very abstract and "meta." But it points to a real issue that has interfered with my desire to get published and paid as a writer.

For background, I have been a writer in various senses of the term, on and off, for many years. The feedback I've gotten from many quarters suggests that my writing skills are at least good--maybe excellent. But subject matter expertise, that's another thing. I'm interested in--and know a little bit about--a great many things. And occasionally I am pleasantly surprised to find that others consider me an expert on one or another thing, but my own feeling is that I don't have much in-depth knowledge of anything in particular.

But that's okay, because if you're a writer, and you don't know enough about the topic, you do research, right?

However, you need to know when research (or more research) is required. And that's where I seem to have a problem.

About ten years ago--the last time I made a serious attempt to get started as a professional writer--there was an incident that really shook my confidence. I had written a chapter for a web development textbook, and then I got assignments from a well-known online technical journal to report on a couple of open source development projects. My first article was very well-received; the second, not so much. I don't think anyone thought it was a terrible piece, but I heard from readers that it was rather superficial and maybe insufficiently objective. If I remember right, the editor agreed that the article was weak, but didn't consider it a major issue (i.e. he would have been happy at that point to accept more work from me).

The reason I got cold feet after that was not simply that I had made a mistake, but that I felt that it could easily have been prevented--if I had just known that I needed to do more homework. And yet, prior to getting the feedback from readers, I had no clue. There was no little voice inside saying "wait, are you sure?" As far as I could tell at the time I submitted it, the unsuccessful article was just as good as the successful one.

What that experience (and some other similar incidents) tells me is that I have a huge blind spot regarding my own understanding of things, which could easily trip me up again any time I try to write on a new topic. And I feel that if I want to get published and keep getting published, I can't afford that.

So: has anyone else encountered this problem? If so, have you learned how to deal with it? Is there a specific method you follow to check your understanding of a topic? Are there any warning signs you have learned to look for?

share|improve this question

1 Answer 1

The question is who you want to write for.

I read one of the major daily newspapers of my country every day. The articles appear well researched (and are well written), and I feel I learn something reading them. But whenever an article deals with a topic in which I am an expert myself, I see many flaws: false information, central concepts not touched upon, etc.

The journalists writing these articles are not experts in any of the topics they write about (except maybe the political and economic journalists), but intelligent laypeople with limited time and resources writing for an intelligent lay audience expecting a knowledgeable but quickly readable overview of some base points and current trends.

For them, the mistakes an expert finds are not a serious problem, because all they want is an introduction: there is this field, these are its topics and protagonists, and this is how far we got. If they want more, they'll find more elsewhere. They understand that a few hundred words will not explain it all to them.

If on the other hand your audience are experts (software developers reading about software development, bankers reading about finances, farmers reading about cows), they expect the author to know more than them, otherwise they have no reason to read his articles, because they will always know more.

So you need to define for yourself (a) what you want to write about and (b) who you want to write for. If you write for an expert audience, you need to be able to provide new information for them. This can be manifold:

  • you are better at what they do and can teach them
  • you observe what's going on at the fringes, where their field touches and interacts with other fields
  • you observe the politics of their field (hiring, company mergers, laws), while they are manily focussing on the actual "science" of it
  • you are writing about the culture of a hard science, or the science of culture, or whatever uncommon aspect gives new insights to old hands
  • etc.

The solution to your problem is being interested in what you write about. If you want to know and understand, this will drive you to gather the information you will need to write about it. And while you gather information, you will see the level of knowledge that is common to the field. Finally your audience will tell you if they find your article too difficult and advanced, or too boring because they already knew it all.

Finding the correct level is like adapting to your partner in a dialogue. How do you explain maths to a child of a certain age? You try. And then you observe the reaction of the child (did he understand? did he already know what you told him? or did it excite him and make him want to know more?), and you will adapt your next explanation to that feedback.

The reaction of the readers and editor of your second article should not have discouraged you (though I totally understand that it did). You should have seen it for what it was: feedback. If you didn't get feedback and people would simply not read your stuff, you would never know what was wrong with it. But they told you and thus gave you an opportunity to adapt to their needs in the next article – or find another audience that better fit your interests and abilities.

When I read the letters to the editor in my newspaper, many of them are harsh critiques of the articles. But the authors don't take every bad critique as meaning: "You are too stupid to write for us. Please stop." They – hopefully – take it as meaning: "It is nice that you want to provide this service for us, and we are grateful, because we need it. But you would help us more, if you did this or that a little different. That would be really nice. Can you?"

Be grateful for that feedback, however harsh it may be phrased, and use it to your advantage, because it is like a blueprint, telling you exactly what you need to succeed. Don't be afraid of critique and failure, but be grateful for the opportunity to understand the needs of your audience.

But as a first step and basic prerequisite, make sure you write only about what interests you. Only your own need to know will help you get over the unkind reactions that will also come.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.