Early in my writing career I met a woman who had written and published hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from laying a wood floor to managing anxiety. When I questioned her about her broad base of knowledge, she joked, “I’m a temporary expert. I learn enough to write about a topic and then move on to the next one.”
Her joke was good advice. I have followed my friend’s five-step plan with good results (sales!) for more than 30 years. You can too.
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Step 1: Select topics of interest
Don’t be fooled by the obvious simplicity of this step. My list included: grandparenting, refugees, money addictions, gratitude, classical Christian literature, and more. Notice how diverse the subjects are. That doesn’t matter. You can learn and write about anything.
Step 2: Contact professionals
While researching and writing When Spending Takes the Place of Feeling (Thomas Nelson), I interviewed professionals in the field of compulsive behavior, attended a 12 step program for debtors, and consulted with therapists who treated people with addictions. My temporary expertise resulted in the book being nominated for a Gold Medallion Award by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.
Step 3: Meet the real experts
While researching my chapter on extraterrestrial trash for my book, Garbage, I read a magazine interview with Don Kessler, a space debris expert with the Johnson Space Center. The following day when I called to speak with him, he answered my questions, put me in touch with appropriate literature on the subject, and sent me free photographs. Voila! I became a temporary expert.
Step 4: Conduct your own research
A friend of mine traveled to Stockholm to research her book on women who have won the Nobel Prize. If you cannot find an original source such as this, look for a reliable ‘secondary’ source. For example, for my children’s book on Vietnam I spoke with a Vietnamese family now living in the U.S. They helped with the pronunciation guide, recipes, folk tales, and details on daily life only they could provide.
Step 5: Make the experience real
Experience is a writer’s best friend. Bake a loaf of bread and then write up the history of this food staple, including a recipe. Spend a day at the zoo, as I did for my book, Maybe You Belong in a Zoo: Careers With Animals and learn all you can firsthand.
Don’t shy away from asking questions and participating in person, whenever possible. Get your feet wet, your hands dirty, your mind engaged, your heart beating. Look, listen, taste, touch, and smell. Then write about it because you know what you’re talking about. You’re an expert––at least temporarily.
Karen O’Connor is an award-winning author of 60 books and hundreds of magazine articles for children and adults, a retreat and conference speaker, a writing instructor with 25 years of experience, and a Christian Writers Guild mentor. Her most recent books are It’s Taken Years to Get This Old and 365 Reasons Why Gettin’ Old Ain’t So Bad (Harvest House 2010).