Must a Writer be an Expert to Write an Article?

Today’s question comes from Tonja Alvis, an aspiring freelancer from my own neighborhood near Seattle. Tonja was thinking about submitting articles to family and religious Web sites, but felt underqualified.

“I can’t get over the fact that I should be more of an expert in this field — a family counselor or with a degree in theology — instead of simply being a writer who is great at writing about these topics.”

Great question Tonja. And I can answer it in three words: Get over it.

It’s a popular myth that professional writers need to possess some kind of official credentials in the subject matter about which they write — that business reporters have an MBA, for instance, or that real-estate writers are all former realtors or mortgage brokers.

One of my first regular freelance gigs was writing cover features for the Los Angeles Times real estate section. I made the contact by winning an essay contest the paper held, soliciting first-person stories about remodeling your house.

When the editor asked me to do regular reporting for him after publishing my first-person essay, I was freaked. “Don’t I need to be a realtor or something for that?” I asked him.

“Oh please no!” he said. “We’ve tried to have professionals like that write for us, and it was always a disaster. Their writing is awful! Your writing is funny and sharp. Please don’t change! Write just the way you do, and learn a little bit about the industry.”

Why did my editor respond this way? Because industry professionals tend to write in dry, almost incomprehensible industry jargon-babble…while most publications are trying to reach a general audience. As a writer with only a layperson’s understanding of your topic, you’re perfect for the job!

When it comes to writing first-person essays on topics you’ve experienced in your own life, you’re all the expert you need to be. Just work on making your writing exceptional, and you’re there.

I’ve written articles about operating a hardware store in Fairbanks, Alaska…using software tools to calculate the money insurers need to keep in reserve against losses…how financial-service startups can land venture capital money…and striking dockworkers in San Pedro, just to name a few. Do you think I am an expert in any of these things? Have I actually been a dockworker or owned a hardware store? Nope.

I always say I may not be an expert in your topic…but give me 24 hours, and I will be. With the Internet, information isn’t hard to find — you can always learn about any subject, and locate experts in that subject you can interview and quote. If you can bring great writing skills, you can find the experts you need for almost any assignment.

Good luck to all the first-time writers out there! If you’re interested in more tips, email me your questions at the address above, and I’ll put you on the list to receive word when I publish my upcoming e-book, Start Freelance Writing.