Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Makes You an Expert?

Every so often, I get emails from people who would like to get into writing, specifically health writing or medical editing. Many are nurses who can no longer work clinically in such a physically demanding job. Others are people who are just interested in the whole idea of working with words.

I didn't follow the usual route into writing as a profession, so I don't know how helpful my advice is. I don't have a background in journalism nor did I study writing, so all I can offer is a bit of insight as to how I got to where I am.

Recently, a person who asked for advice also asked, "What makes you an expert?" That question caught me off guard.

Does someone need to be an expert to write about a topic or in a niche? That brings about the question, can you/should you only write about what you know or have experienced? If that was the case, there would be so many fewer books in the world, don't you think? There would be no science fiction, no history books, no fiction. Would Shakespeare (or whomever is taking credit for his work these days) have written Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet? Would Douglas Adams have written The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

I don't think you need to be an expert in a field to write about it - to a certain extent. In my case, I'm comfortable in writing in a niche with which I am familiar. I write about health issues for the general public and I write general health and medical articles or texts for allied health professionals (nurses, pharmacists, and physiotherapists, for example). But I can't/don't write very specific medical or scientific texts because they are beyond my knowledge base and something that I would find it very difficult to learn. Mind you, if I had to and if I really wanted to, I'm sure I could.

Much of being a writer is knowing how to do research. Knowing where to look and how to find and use the information that you have discovered. You also have to be able to accept that you will make mistakes and correct them when you do. If someone points out an error in your writing, fix it and move on. Learn from it. If you know all this, then there is no reason why you can't write in a subject that is outside your comfort zone.

Health writing has been very good to me. I love what I do. I have great clients and I love learning new things when I get new clients and assignments. It will always be my bread and butter when it comes to my work. But, I have also wanted to break out of health writing for a while, trying to heed my own advice of reaching beyond my own borders. I was thrilled when I had a few articles published about quilting. While I'm not an expert at quilting, I've been doing it for over 20 years now and I do know more than a few things about the craft. I'd like to do more writing outside health and I'm confident it will come. I just don't know when.

I know writers who became very knowledgable in real estate, small business, even engineering issues although they knew nothing about those topics before they started. They did interviews, they read pages and pages of information, they asked questions - they learned. After a while, they became expert enough in the area that they became sought after by editors who wanted the writers' experience. It can be done.

So, what makes me an expert? Nothing. I know how to look for information, how to ask for help - and that is what is important. And if writing is what you want to do, if you have the basic concepts of how to write well and effectively, don't let the lack of expertise stop you. Give it a try. You never know where it will lead you.


Recommendations for aspiring writers:


The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success (The Renegade Writer's Freelance Writing series)

The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels

Freelance writers' community: 

Freelance Success

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