The blank page glares at you from the screen. You feel a cold sweat coming on. You’ve committed to a writing project on a topic you aren’t familiar with, and now you have second thoughts.
How do I write authoritatively about something I don’t understand? Worse: how do I edit my writing when I’m not a subject-matter expert? What happens if I fail? If I die of a panic attack here at my desk, how many days until someone finds me?
I know how you feel. In 2016, I said yes to writing a corporate history book for a major machinery manufacturer. I knew nothing about corporate culture. I knew nothing about their equipment. I knew nothing about the family who had owned this dealership for generations. Yet I found myself in a 7-month contract for a 170-page book.
What had I done?
But seven months later, after much hard work, I delivered a book that my client praised.
So how do you go from clueless to confident when writing about the unfamiliar? Like all writing projects, there’s no magic bullet to get you around old-fashioned hard work. But I can offer suggestions to make the hard work more productive.
Read, read, read about your topic.
Don’t wait for the client to explain the subject from square one. Arm yourself with knowledge by reading up on the topic ahead of time.
Why do this?
It makes you look proactive and builds the client’s confidence in your abilities.
You won’t begin the project completely in the dark.
Gaining a general sense of the topic helps you formulate the right questions to ask.
Written work contains more knowledge than any one person can give you.
My client had extensive company archives. I spent hours reading type-written family histories, presentation notes from decades past, and yellowed advertising brochures from every era. Multiple employees said upon reading my book, “I learned things about my own company for the first time from reading this.”
Find a resource person or subject-matter expert.
Find someone who knows the unfamiliar topic in depth and can guide you through the learning process.
Why do this?
You may need dozens of random questions answered about your subject throughout the project, and you need a go-to person to start with for each question.
A resource person can connect you to other experts whose help you might need.
I got lucky at the dealership; the marketing department introduced me to a long-time employee who loved company history and had connections in all departments. When I needed to interview retirees, he gave me a list of names and numbers. When I needed an overview of a particular subject, he provided one. When I didn’t understand something I read in the archives, he either explained it himself or found someone who could. He even took me around through the machine service shop, protective goggles and all.
Record interviews when possible.
As you interview subject matter experts and others involved in the project, ask their permission to record the interviews. Remember to include the date and the person’s name, correctly spelled, in the file name.
Why do this?
During the interview, you’ll spend a lot of energy just trying to pick up the basics. A recording helps you review the conversation and draw out more detail.
Recordings help you maintain accuracy in what you write, especially for highly technical subjects that you aren’t familiar with.
When you review the conversation, you’ll likely think of more follow-up questions to ask through email or over the phone to expand your knowledge.
Recording can be an app on your phone or a specially designed recorder. Just make sure you have your subject’s permission.
Speak up with questions.
It can feel awkward to ask basic or trivial questions of a subject matter expert, but don’t be shy. Ask anything and everything you don’t understand, even the things you don’t think you’ll actually put on paper.
Why do this?
Most people like talking about their area of expertise and won’t mind giving you a refresher on a concept you didn’t get the first time.
You may think you can scrape by without understanding a detail or two, but your lack of knowledge might show when it’s time to start writing.
The more you understand a subject, the more authoritative your writing will sound—even if you don’t use all the details you learned.
The book I wrote was 170 pages. If I typed out everything I actually learned, it would be more than double that length.
Take the project one step at a time.
It may sound obvious, but one of the biggest reasons we get stuck on big projects is that we’re thinking about getting the whole thing done. But when it comes to huge writing projects, especially those on a completely foreign subject, even the most motivated writer needs to break it up into smaller chunks to get anything done.
Count the reading material you find as your first step. You’ll feel encouraged to have already accomplished some of the task.
Try to learn one thing at a time. Cramming everything in at once doesn’t work for writing any better than it worked for college exams.
For larger projects like the one I wrote, try researching and writing one chapter at a time, rather than researching material for 2-3 chapters at once. This was the thing that saved my sanity.
When I look back at everything I learned from scratch in just 7 months, it’s dizzying. An entire family history. The evolution of the heavy construction industry. Business management theories. Succession plans for family businesses.
If I’d looked on the job as one gigantic project, I would have frozen in fear, or maybe turned it down. But I treated it as small projects that had to be done in a certain order, and soon enough, I was finished.
What do you do to survive a huge freelance writing project?
Have you ever taken on a project that was well outside your wheelhouse? What about a B2B copywriting project on a dry or technical subject? Any other advice for how to equip yourself for success?