How to Be an Expert or Just Write Like One
© Christina Hamlett
Once upon a time, the fruits of my creative labor at the keyboard were primarily limited to the two subjects I considered that I knew best: writing and the performing arts. Not a publishing stone was left unturned as I cranked out article after article drawn from personal experience and useful tidbits I had gleaned from my peers.
Unfortunately, it didn't take too long to run out of viable markets. It's not that they didn't like what I was writing; it's that they liked it too much and to the point I was dominating their issues (to the exclusion of other contributors).
This being in the days before the Internet and global recycling of previously published works, I was at a loss on what to do next. Not only did the various pieces on writing and theater represent a nice chunk of supplemental change but conveniently filled in those ominous patches of writers' block every time I found myself in a mental cul-de-sac with one of my plays or novels.
A solution to this unbidden hiatus suddenly came from an unexpected direction.
"I've started doing some research for a health magazine," a friend wrote to tell me. "The pay is pretty good, too. Would you be interested?"
The combination of "research" and "health" in the same sentence immediately conjured the image of lab rats and high school chemistry. "What kind of research?" I queried, trying to fathom why she had asked me in the first place.
The articles, it turned out, were on topics of current interest, employing a user friendly style to demystify the latest medical breakthroughs, diet trends, new age therapies, etc. to the workaday public. The editor herself assigned the various subjects, my friend explained; all I'd have to do is research the material, extract the basics, interview some experts for clarification, and write it all up in an accurate yet entertaining fashion.
Still dubious that my liberal arts background was the right kind of match for this kind of freelancing, I turned in a sample assignment regarding the health benefits of tomatoes.
The result? The tomato article flew to the top of the popularity list with readers, carrying me along with it as the newest addition to the publication's staff. Before I knew it, I began to branch out to other topics I'd previously never considered: Asian art, budget weddings, digital photography, corporate grants, suffragettes, and the history of New York delis.
One of my associates was nothing less than perplexed when I had to cancel a lunch date with her because I was under deadline to finish a column about glucosamine.
"You?" she said. "Since when did you become an expert on something like that?"
The reality, of course, is that I'm not an expert. I've simply learned how to put my facts together and convincingly sound like one. Doors which I might never have considered knocking on are regularly swinging open, leading to an epiphany that is too good not to share: if you know how to write, if you know how to look things up, and if you know who your target reader is, you really can write anything and get paid for it.
Herein is an intriguing idea-starter to bulk up your own portfolio this year:
Pick a subject that you've never tackled before and go learn three interesting things about it. And no fair picking something that's been rattling around in your head but that you just haven't had the time or discipline to commit to paper! What you're going to be writing about needs to be fresh, new, and previously unexplored territory.
At a loss for a topic? Just look around you, particularly at items which seem incredibly ordinary.
Somebody had to see a need for these devices and subsequently invent them, right? Ever wonder how long they've been around? Are the present-day forms the evolution of a long process of trial and error or did the inventor get it right the first time off the drawing board? Did he or she ever invent anything else? Did they live happily ever after off their royalties or die in obscurity in somebody's attic?
If three inanimate objects like these are capable of stirring so many questions, just imagine what you can do with real people, real places, and real events in the human timeline once you start probing for answers. The only gotcha when navigating foreign turf, of course, is that you verify your facts, figures and quotes with at least two sources that are independent and unrelated to the first place you found them.
It's also important, especially in science or medical articles, to use creative analogies that laymen will readily associate with. In an early piece on data retrieval, for instance, I used the example of valet parking in a multi-story garage. In another article on the hazards of fasting, I used a popular table game to illustrate how the risky removal of essential nutrients can lead to the total collapse of the system.
Once your core article is developed, don't be shy about letting others read it and picking their brains for unanswered questions in order to make the material as thorough as possible. Nor should you be shy about letting friends, family and co-workers know what topics you're currently researching; just like the value of networking when you're seeking a new job, you never know how many real experts you can uncover who can further your knowledge and perspective.
From there, it's a matter of finding markets-trade magazines, fillers, advertising brochures. You may even get so swept away by your topic du jour that you decide to write an entire book about it!
Copyright © Christina Hamlett
Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on a wide range of subjects.