The last blog, Gigabytes and Gila Monster: Writing about Technical Subjects, discussed the fact that you don’t have to be an expert to be able to write effectively about topics in IT or engineering. In fact, it can get in the way of clear, concise writing.
Here are some of the ways a writer can make up for a lack of know-how in any area of knowledge.
One of the secrets of my success is that I don’t consider myself an expert. Instead,, I base my articles on the views of other experts. I communicate what they say as opposed to trying to appear wise myself. After all, I am not a trained expert in that field. I can’t operate heavy machinery or set up complex computer systems. But I can talk to those who do. And I can write about what they say.
Many of these specialists are delighted to spend time on the phone or via email discussing their own areas. They really don’t mind being asked what might seem like stupid questions. When you talk to them, don’t pretend to understand. Be upfront and ask for definitions or examples. Ask him or her to clarify things. And listen to what they have to say.
Do your Homework
If you find the interview is taking too long and you really don’t know enough about it, ask your expert if they could send you a few links or presentations so you can study up some more. Reschedule the call. And make sure you are ready the next time. This situation, however, indicates a lack of homework prior to the call.
Before doing an interview, put in the time to prepare in advance. Study as much as you have to. It’s better to study up on the area and then form your interview questions. If you skip the study, your questions may betray your lack of preparation.
That said, preparation should not be more than an hour or two. Just enough so you have the general idea.
The amazement factor is a key aspect of the job. You must be willing to inspect obscure areas of human endeavor and find fascination in them. My favorite example is the article I had to write on the glue used on cereal boxes. 2000 words to write about a glue? Yet it turned out to be one of the most memorable interviews ever.
The scientist was utterly enamored with his chosen field. He was in love with glue. And he made me love it too because I listened and was willing to be amazed. Our topic was the four keystones of the perfect glue for a cereal box: strong enough to stay shut; not difficult to pry open; no unpleasant odor; and not impairing the flavor. In the end, 2000 words turned out to be a piece of cake.
Other topics I’ve had to tackle: odor suppression in garbage disposal; the differences between the standards and laws governing insurance and banking; types of crosswalk; a particular type of bolt (1500 words on a bolt!); algae build up on ship hulls; and the properties of shark skin. Each could be seen as mind numbing or enthralling depending no your point of view.
As a writer, you have to be willing to listen, and be amazed by the intricacies present in every field of activity. If you can’t ever seen to be wowed by what you hear, you may have to find another job.