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.

Other posts by Michele Linn

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