How to write with content experts
Being an expert in your business, subject or industry, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same in-depth knowledge as you. It can be difficult to communicate your knowledge clearly to people who are not experts themselves.
Writing content for the web, our goal is to provide prospective customers or users with the information they’re looking for in a way they can understand and use it.
We look at two ways to get the right information from subject matter experts as a writer, and what to keep in mind when working with them to translate their knowledge into a clear, plain language that answers questions effectively, meets user needs and solves problems.
Why work with subject matter experts
We’ve all come across content that’s difficult to understand. Perhaps it’s academic in style, using unfamiliar words and phrases. It may be long-winded and unstructured so we can’t easily find the information we need. Or perhaps it plunges into detail too soon without giving an overview of what the piece is about.
Subject matter experts are people who really know their stuff, but they may not know how to write about it in a way that’s easy to understand and quick to read for others.
So organisations find themselves with two options, either:
take the time to train subject experts in plain English writing to engage their audience effectively,
or let a communication specialist (such as a copywriter or content designer) be the intermediary that captures the expert knowledge and translates it into content that’s readable, usable and useful.
Subject experts are often used to speaking industry language and communicating in that way after years of experience. Reprogramming the way they communicate can be time-consuming and costly, especially when they have other things to be getting on with.
Ways to work with experts
However, pairing a content person with a subject expert can help you harness that knowledge and translate the information quickly and efficiently. There are different ways of doing this, but the two most common are:
You jointly work on a piece of content in the same document, either in person or speaking on the phone. This can work well in some situations, but you’ll need to set clear expectations and guidelines to prepare the subject expert beforehand so that you don’t encounter problems during the session.
For example, someone used to writing in a technical or academic style may feel that plain English is ‘dumbing down’ the information, and you may waste time debating it in the session.
When time and resources are limited, the most efficient way is through a Q and A session, where you ask prepared questions and record the information from the subject expert. This is our preferred method when we work with clients like solicitors, engineers, tech experts, and human rights advisors as it allows us to get the information we need by phone, and quickly turn it into a first draft for them to review.
How to host an effective subject expert session
As with everything in life, being well-prepared with a clear plan goes a long way. Here are a few things you can do to use everyone’s time in the best way possible.
Define specific goals for the piece - have a clear idea of who you’re writing for and why, and set out the acceptance criteria. What’s the information the reader needs to learn from reading the piece? This helps the subject expert to quickly understand the context for the piece, and provide useful and relevant information without digressing.
Do some desk research - you want to capture information from your subject expert, and researching in advance helps you ask questions and guide the conversation. It also gives you an idea of the keywords people use, and the language and style often associated with the subject.
Prepare a list of questions - think about how you’ll guide your subject expert to get the right information from them.
We recently worked with a disability rights advisor to create a piece of content for Scope, the UK’s leading disability charity. The piece was about what people should do if they felt they’d been discriminated against using private services. Some of our questions for the advisor included:
How does the Equality Act apply to private suppliers of goods and services?
What’s the first thing someone should do if they feel discriminated against?
Are there any common myths about discrimination or mistakes you see people make?
What’s your advice to someone who feels unsure whether they should raise their concern?
If they decide to take legal action, what are the time and cost implications?
Decide on a format for the session - consider the subject expert’s role and their writing style. You may want to ask others in the organisation if you don’t know them personally. A pair writing session working together in a shared Google document might give you a great first draft if they’re familiar with writing for your audience. For more technical or academic experts, a Q and A session by phone, Skype or in person might be easier.
For the session itself, it’s important to do the following to keep everything on track:
Set clear expectations - let your subject expert know how much time you need from them, the process, and set their expectations for the session. An hour phone call is usually enough for one piece of content, and we always send them our questions in advance so they can prepare too. If you’re co-writing, you may need longer, and it will help to explain the benefits of writing in plain English or front-loading the content before you start.
Lead the session - you need to take the reigns and guide your subject expert through the process. Explain the intention for the piece, and who you’re writing for and why. Then, ask them about their role and experience to get the conversation started. From there, guide them through your questions and make notes. If you’re pair-writing in a document, take it in turns to write and ask questions. You may find your subject expert is more comfortable talking than writing, and you’ll usually find your flow after a few minutes. At the end of the session, go back to your acceptance criteria for the piece, and make sure you have all the information you need. Ask your subject expert if you can follow up with any questions by email, and whether they’re happy to review a first draft for you.
Working with subject matter experts can be daunting at the start, especially if you’re not used to sharing work early and often. But working together to create content helps you:
address the needs of your users and organisation
provide accurate, relevant information
reduce the amount of back and forth for editing
increase understanding of content as a process across your organisation
There are different ways to approach this work in collaboration with experts, but it’s always a good idea to experiment and try different things to find a way that works for you.
Content design techniques: pair writing - Geoff Day, Imperial College London
It takes 2: how we use pair writing - Sue Davis, Government Digital Services
Use pair writing to collaborate with subject experts - Jonathan Kahn, GatherContent
Create better content by writing in pairs - Bjørn Bergslien, UXBooth
How UX writers can harness the power of pair writing - Steven Douglas, UX Planet
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