What is an “Expert Writer”?

“Hire Expert Writers,” Says Google

That is the title of a post from M2Bespoke about Google’s emphasis on returning reputable content. What is an “expert writer” in this context?

Many of those who have commented on it and passed it around take it to mean expertise in writing. That seems to be the interpretation that the author of the article is making as well:

There’s no doubt you’re experts in your industry, but do you have professional writers within your business to convey that expertise? Google says: if not, why not?

The search engine giant, who we all quite rightly pander to, has recently suggested that businesses need to hire expert writers in order to add a true level of authority to their content.

The way “professional writers” in the first paragraph elides into “expert writers” in the second suggests that the expertise that is sought is expertise in writing.

Yet as we read on, it becomes abundantly clear that what Google means is writers who are experts in their subject matter.

  • Complex medical advice should only be given by people or organisations that possess appropriate accreditation. It should, likewise, be written in a professional style and will need to be reviewed, updated, and edited regularly in order to ensure that it remains current and authoritative.
  • Complex financial advice, tax advice, or legal advice should be written by expert writers and will need to be updated regularly.
  • Important advice pages that may affect a person’s finances or well-being (this includes investment pages, home remodelling pages, and parenting pages) needs to be written by an “expert” source.
  • Hobby pages on topics like hockey, horseback riding, or photography, require expert writers.

Even for material that does not come from a defined profession, it is expertise in the subject matter that is sought:

“If it seems as if the person creating the content has the type and amount of life experience to make him or her an “expert” on the topic, we will value this “everyday expertise” and not penalize the person/page/website for not having “formal” education or training in the field.”

There is not a word in any of this about how well the writer slings nouns and verbs or their deft touch with prepositions.

My point?

Well, this may not be going were you expect. My point is about the curse of knowledge and the role of stories in communication. When people (like me) who consider themselves professional writers hear “hire expert writers”, we automatically tend hear “hire people who are experts in writing”.

When the rest of the world hears “hire expert writers”, it hears “hire people who are experts on their subject matter”. (This includes the publishing industry by the way. Try to pitch a nonfiction book and you will find that the first question you have to answer is why you are the right person to write this book, meaning what is your expertise in this area.)

As professional writers we ought to understand this. We ought to understand that what images and ideas pop into your head when you hear a phrase like “expert writer” depends on your everyday experiences and the stories you live with every day.

We should recognize that absorption in any field does not simply give you additional knowledge or additional vocabulary, it creates a gravity well of stories that warps how you think and talk and understand. This is the curse of knowledge that makes it very difficult for experts in a field to communicate effectively with those outside it.

Which, ironically, is the best, and perhaps only, justification for hiring an expert writer, in the sense of expert in writing. Because what should set an expert writer apart is their appreciation of the curse of knowledge, their ability to achieve escape velocity from the gravity well of stories around the subject matter they are describing.

But in order to make this claim, we must first make sure we are not sucked into the gravity well of our own set of stories about what professional writing is. We need to break our own curse of knowledge before we propose to free anyone else from theirs.

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12 Responses to What is an “Expert Writer”?

  1. Peter Sturgeon 2016/02/18 at 14:06 #

    Being an expert doesn’t necessarily mean that you are capable of explaining what you know to people who aren’t as knowledgeable as you. I had some very bright professors in high school and at university who were terrible communicators.

    My dad, who was an accomplished carpenter, relied on trade secrets and muscle memory to do amazing things with wood, but was often at a loss to explain either how or why he did things the way he did.

    • Mark Baker 2016/02/18 at 14:28 #

      Yes, these are the stories that every professional writer knows, and that the rest of the world does not know. They are why when people say “expert writer” we hear “expert communicator” but everyone else hears “expert practitioner”. They are part of our curse of knowledge.

      And these stories are true, of course, because the curse of knowledge is caused by knowledge, not ignorance. This is why truly great books are so rare. There are so few expert practitioners who are also expert communicators. And the expert/editor combination tends not to work terribly well either because most of the time the two continue to live in their own separate gravity wells.

      And because there is no particular shortage of pages on the Web that are highly articulate, clear, and wrong, there is a natural concern with establishing the authority of the voice as well as, and in the end more than, its clarity.

  2. Tom Johnson 2016/02/18 at 15:49 #

    The whole value proposition of a tech writer in a developer doc environment where other developers could write content as well rests in the argument you’re making about the curse of knowledge.

    I really like the science metaphor you paint here:

    Because what should set an expert writer apart is their appreciation of the curse of knowledge, their ability to achieve escape velocity from the gravity well of stories around the subject matter they are describing.

    • Mark Baker 2016/02/22 at 07:47 #

      Thanks for the comment, Tom.

      Over the years I have come to see that the great irony of this profession (if it is a profession) is that the reason it exists is to combat the curse of knowledge, and the reason that so many organizations don’t understand it, don’t know how to hire for it, and don’t know how to value it or evaluate its practitioners is because of the curse of knowledge.

  3. John Crossland 2016/02/22 at 05:46 #

    Oh crap. Are Google now advocating a ‘back to the future’ approach to Technical Communication / Technical Writing / Technical Authoring / Information Development, where they want experts in subject matter and experts in writing to do it all for them?

    I think this will make it harder for non-SME writers to interact with development teams.
    Had this as an Information Developer at IBM documenting CICS API with an expectation that I’d become an SME to leave developers alone. Good when you know your stuff but hard to start with. I think it could exclude us from working iteratively with Agile/Scrum etc.

    • Mark Baker 2016/02/22 at 07:43 #

      Thanks for the comment, John.

      I think it is universal that people want the information they read to be written by an expert in the subject. I know that it is universal that publishers what the author’s of non-fiction books to be experts in the subject.

      The model of tech writer as the writing expert who interviews the SME is one that exists because it is often hard to find an experts who has the time, skill, and willingness to do the writing. The questions are:

      • Should companies formalize this model and quit looking for experts who can write?
      • Should writers assume this model to be normal or should they develop subject matter expertise in order to be more marketable?

      • Should tech writers be recruited from the ranks of graduates with writing degrees or the ranks of professional practitioners who have reached their teaching years?

      To be honest, I think many companies hire technical writers not with any theory about content quality in mind. Content quality is too hard to measure, and its impact on the bottom line is too hard to measure for it to inform their hiring practices. I think they hire technical writers to free up the time of engineers to do engineering. Thus if they seek to hire tech writers with subject matter expertise it is first and foremost to lessen the amount of engineering time they take up. So yes, become an SME to leave the developers alone may be exactly the point.

      • Alex Knappe 2016/02/23 at 11:11 #

        Tech writers definitely should be SMEs.
        But what is an SME in our case? The expertise required in this case is NOT the expertise you would expect from an engineer. Engineers/developers specialize in several fields if expertise. Mechanics, optics, electronics, programming – you name it.
        Tech writers on the other hand specialize in information gathering and information processing. We gather the essence of what other specialists provide and process this information to something completely new. We are the ones that need to lift the curse of knowledge and provide the expertise of the subject to our audience.
        If you’re going to build a car, you won’t specialize in producing tires or windshields. You specialize in producing cars.

        • Mark Baker 2016/02/23 at 11:36 #

          Thanks for the comment, Alex.

          That is certainly the standard commercial model of technical writing. All I am pointing out is that what people actually want is content written by experts in the subject matter. Whether we believe in the efficacy of the standard tech writing model or not, we should not fool ourselves that it represents what the public thinks it wants. That is not necessarily a knock on the model, just a caution about how it should understand and promote itself.

      • John Crossland 2016/02/23 at 20:18 #

        I agree that becoming an SME over time is a useful thing to do in any field of writing. But it is hard to get started if you’re working with experts and you aren’t one, yet you’re expected to pick it up not as a novice but as an expert. I’ve done this with networking training, where I trained as a network admin to then write effectively for them. I can do this now by training as a system admin, however, there’s lots of information that is proprietary and is hard to get trained on. If you’re documenting proprietary systems and need to learn them for yourself, not be trained by others or interview others to find out how stuff works, then you need to do the job they do (developer / tester / support engineer), then write it all up for them. This is hard to do. Very few outside of IT would do this. I doubt medical professionals would allow this.

  4. Chris Horton 2016/02/25 at 18:01 #

    Great points. Thanks, Mark. Technical writing, of course, is about communication–it’s not fiction writing, not blog writing, not nonfiction magazine writing or book writing–it’s at bottom an editorial skill aimed at producing usable content. Usability is the key differentiator from other kinds of writing. Someone needs information to do something; otherwise, most likely the document doesn’t need to be written. The world is already overflowing with an endless river of data; we’re only at the beginning of the trend toward yottabytes. So it’s even more important to provide exactly the right amount of information for users to have a successful experience with a product.

    Engineers are typically intelligent people, but so many are far from being “expert writers.” In fact, some of them often miss the point of written communication altogether. I’ve supported digital designers for years. While I have a conceptual understanding of digital hardware, enough to edit and rewrite their content, I”m far from being a SME. I think there’s a mid-point where writer meets SME, bridging editorial skill with understanding. Many engineers look down on those who are not engineers yet support engineering documents. But if you can improve a document through topic refinement and precision, simplify a complex description in plain language, trim the fat, improve logical flow, they will love you for it and value your contribution.

    • Mark Baker 2016/02/25 at 18:30 #

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      Yes, that is the model, and the justification for the model. And I am not saying it’s wrong.

      But here’s the thing. I once ran the mailing list for a product. From time to time users would post a question on the list. They would get a reply form one of our brilliant engineers (let’s call him Roy). That reply was brilliant, incisive, useful, and totally incomprehensible.

      The user would then reply with saying something I can best paraphrase as “Huh?

      Then I would write a post say began, “What Roy is saying is…”

      Then the user would reply saying, “Oh, thanks.”

      And the next time that user had a question, they would post to the list saying “Hi Roy, can you tell me how to…”

      Just saying.

  5. Diego Schiavon 2016/04/29 at 03:38 #

    Oh my, two months since the last comment. I have been mulling this over for a very long time.

    So, what the article is saying is that
    a) people who write should be good SMEs and
    b) writing does not really matter because everyone can write.

    What most technical writers say is that b) is simply not true, as many engineers are so deep in their subject matter, and so poor at language, that they are basically incomprehensible.

    So companies should employ us.

    While I agree that b) is not true, I do not think that companies should necessarily hire technical writers.

    First of all, while technical writers might say that they are both writers and “technical” people, they are generally neither. This results in writing that is neither clear not correct.

    What technical writers are really good at, is writing in FrameMaker (Word, Flare, whatever). We know the ins and outs of the new features. Which are awesome. And totally irrelevant.

    There are exceptions, of course, and the longer a writer is in the job, the better she gets. Still, it is a long way littered with Structured FM-compliant text that satisfies neither the readers, nor the SMEs.

    My take on technical writing in general is that engineers should be doing the writing. Yes, SMEs. Of course only some SMEs are able to do that, and they need instruction, help, and significant substantive editing.

    But the time they would waste on writing, they would have wasted answering stupid questions from glorified FrameMaker monkeys, anyway.

    The investment in instruction will be easily recouped by:

    Improvement in the content of documentation.
    Engineers becoming more aware of documentation and communication in general.
    Firing the technical writers.

    Technical writer are often just one more silo in the organization. They add no value and use up time and resources.

    What the world needs are engineers who are better at writing. And editors to help them on the way.