By Michele Linn published May 29, 2012

How to Get the Most From Freelance Writers Who Aren’t Subject Matter Experts

Last week, we received this question from one of our Content Marketing Institute readers:

“I do have a question though which has been nagging at me lately. I work for an agency with about 15 freelance writers who are generalists and not experienced with our industries. In order for them to write about a topic we have to find an existing article so they can use it as a resource. I feel that this restricts the topics we can write about.

For example, if I think of a topic such as Practical Ways Hospitals Can Reduce Medical Errors I’ll need to find a similar article so they can basically rewrite it. Can you provide any tips to help get great content from a general freelance writer? Unfortunately, getting new freelance writers isn’t an option! Thank you so much!”

Chances are, if you are working with freelance writers, you’re likely dealing with a similar issue. Clare McDermott, editor of Chief Content Officer magazine, gave me several suggestions on how to work through this challenge:

Interview subject matter experts

One of the best ways to get the knowledge you need for any content is to work with a subject matter expert from the client’s company. Clare suggests short interviews with subject matter experts to source ideas. Even in an outsourced relationship, writers should have access to in-company experts and analysts to come up with fresh ideas that are challenging and educational. It’s really important to explain to these people that they are not being interviewed to educate the writer, but to educate their peers. The writer is just a fly on the wall.  Manya Chylinski also has some additional suggestions for getting the most out of your subject matter experts.

Ask analysts

Take advantage of any analysts the company you work for has at their disposal. They can be treasure troves of information. Just remember: you usually can’t quote an analyst (you can only quote published research by the analyst), so ensure you review permissions before soliciting input.

Use the Q&A format for articles

For a subject that is particularly technical and difficult — and well beyond the knowledge base of even a smart writer — consider creating a Q&A article for a particular topic. The writer would need to interview the subject matter expert, and this way, the writer acts more as an editor than an original thinker. Additionally, this takes the pressure off the writer to write competently about a topic they really don’t understand well and can’t fake.

Develop a series of articles

One of the challenges writers face: Each time they write an article, they must learn and quasi-master a new subject area. Consider putting together a thematic series on a particular topic. A series helps a writer dig deeper into a particular topic and build on their studies over time.

Start small

Do not try to undertake a larger (longer) writing project unless you have a very involved subject matter expert(s) who cares about the project and is invested in seeing it completed. There’s nothing worse than taking on a large project only to find out you have few resources outside of internet searches to do the job well.

If you are working with writers, here are some additional tips on how to find the right people and work with them:

What other suggestions do you have for working with writers who are not subject matter experts?

Author: Michele Linn

Michele Linn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Mantis Research, a consultancy focused on helping brands create and amplify original research they can use in their marketing. Before starting Mantis, Michele was head of editorial at Content Marketing Institute, where she led the company's strategic editorial direction, co-developed its annual research studies, wrote hundreds of articles, spoke at industry events and was instrumental in building the platform to 200,000 subscribers. In 2015, she was named one of Folio's Top Women in Media (Corporate Visionary). You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

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  • Janice King

    Is using generalist copywriters costing you more than you think? Will asking SMEs to do basic education of writers be the best use of their time, especially when it takes away from activities that directly lead to more revenue?

    The more technical or specialized content, the more important these questions become. With so many freelance writers who offer specific industry or subject area experience, there’s little reason to use a generalist for these focused projects.

    For ideas to help you in making the best use of freelance copywriters and subject experts, see these two posts on my blog:

    • Michele Linn

      Hi Janice,
      I agree that specialists are often better than generalist, especially when it is a technical subject. However, the person asking this question doesn’t have the ability to hire new writers, so these are suggestions to work within those parameters. Thanks for sharing the links.

    • Inbound Marketer

       Hi Janice,

      Thanks for the links…I’ll read them tomorrow morning. As I mentioned in my previous comment it was cost prohibitive to use specialists so we’re trying to do the best we can. Don’t get me wrong…we have very talented writers but you can only do so much with dry or overly technical subjects.


  • Therese

    In response to Janice’s comments: I’m a copywriter and content developer, and I write both sales and marketing-focused copy and content/articles. Copywriting is a different beast compared to article and content writing. As a copywriter, this annoys me when people lump content writing into copywriting as they are NOT the same writing beast. This isn’t directed at your article, Michelle, but I think Janice missed the point of your article. Your article talks about freelance content writers and not copywriters. I think freelance content writers can get away with being “general” writers compared to copywriters. 

    Writing skills are just part of the freelancer’s package they offer to a company. If anything, a freelance writer needs to be an excellent researcher and interviewer. They need to stay up-to-date with industry trends and topics. I actually disagree with the person who wrote the question. It should not fall on the editor’s or project manager’s shoulders to “baby” the writers. Yes, they need guidance but it should not be their sole responsibility find articles they can “repurpose”. Not to mention – why is she having them repurpose content in the first place? If they need that much hand-holding and can’t figure out how to research the topic, it makes me wonder why did she hire inexperienced freelance writers in the first place?

    Michelle, the tips you bring up in your article are helpful, BUT a polished, experienced freelance writer should already have this skill set in place (i.e. how to interview experts, how to write a Q&A format article, etc.) before they are sub-contracted by a company. It makes more sense for the person who hires the freelancers to hire “niche” writers who have expertise in that specific industry.

    It sounds like she can’t hire new writers that would be a better fit for her industry, so she’s basically stuck and has to work with the writer’s skill set (or lack thereof).

    Just a few tips for those who sub-contract with freelance writers: BEFORE hiring any freelancer, you need to make sure they are a good match with your industry and ask for writing samples. I contract with a hospitality, restaurant and food-industry specific marketing agency. I focus on that niche as my area of copy specialty and it makes me more marketable as a copywriter. Can I write copy and content for other industries? Yes, because I have the background and experience working for and with other industries. But there are some industries that I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole, because I don’t have the background and don’t feel comfortable writing about those topics. 

    Bottom line – hire professional writers and save yourself the grief, frustration and stress of trying to groom writers. A company doesn’t have the time or money to baby writers. 

    • Michele Linn

      Hi Therese,
      You raise good points, and I think it’s very important to qualify writers before you hire them. But, as you mention, this question was posed by someone who does not have the option of hiring new writers. And, simply re-writing content that has already been used is certainly not a best practice! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. 

    • Inbound Marketer

       Hi Therese,

      I agree that we should not have to baby the writers and this is something we’re working on (hence this discussion). We’re trying to find a good balance when providing the writers with direction. We’ve tried looking for specialists in some of our fields but it has been cost prohibitive. For example, if we were to write about Tips for Brain Surgeons to Reduce Medical Errors we would need someone who is overaly familiar with brain surgery and they don’t come cheap. So what we’ve done thus far is find tips on brain surgery and add our own opinions and voice to it.

      I’m just using the brain surgery topic as an example to illustrate the level I’m working with. Your last sentence is dead on and we (I) don’t have the time to baby writers so I’m looking for ways to help my team.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Inbound Marketer

    Michele – thank you so much for helping me with this! These are all great tips. I recently interviewed several SME’s on a subject and provided our writers with an outline to write about and I think this method will definitely help out.

    I’ll address the current comments individually and I look forward to many more.

    • Michele Linn

      Great idea! Glad these suggestions help, and let me know if you have any others.