Back to School: How to Treat an Expert

The old adage “write what you know” is an old adage for a reason. All it takes to turn an enthusiastic reader into a bitter critic is for the written material to not hold up to professional scrutiny. Artistic license is crucial, but plot points and resolutions fall flat if reality is stretched out of ignorance.

However, if people only ever wrote what they knew, literature would be very boring indeed. So don’t just write what you know. Write what you’re willing to learn.

And then get an expert.

How does a writer find and work with an expert? The answer is fairly simple. Do your homework and be polite.

There’s certainly no one way to find an expert, and the method will vary depending on the area you are researching, the depth of content you require, and your geographical location and personal connections.

  • Who do you know? Talk to friends, family, service providers, etc.
  • Tap into the hive mind. Update your status, tweet, or put up the bat signal. Chances are, if you don’t know someone in a given field, someone you do know knows someone in a given field.
  • Research your research. Google the material you’re looking into. Grab an old-school phone book. What professionals come up? Refine your search to your area. Contact individuals from a college or university near you or find a local business.

Regardless of how you locate an expert, there are a few things you can do to make working with you a positive experience. Always be polite and appreciative. While these folks are presumably interested in what you’ll be talking about, they have other things to be doing.

  • Ask nicely. Don’t flatter, but put some effort into how you word your request. If I’m asked to give input but the question itself didn’t seem worth the time to be phrased well, my enthusiasm for helping out has taken a blow before we’ve begun.
  • Work around them. My husband (a teacher) was recently asked to contribute some ideas for a book involving science on an eighth grade level. The writer knew that my husband’s schedule would involve our son, so the writer hosted them both, chatting with my husband while my son had a chance to play with the writer’s kid. You’re asking for their help, so find out what’s easiest for them.
  • Offer them coffee or a pint. Make a gesture of gratitude if you meet in person. If you’re inquiring via email, take the same care in drafting your communication as you would in all of your writing.
  • Make it personal. Ask them about their background and journey. Inspiration might just be waiting for an introduction.
  • Know what you need. This isn’t the time to wander in with no agenda. Be prepared to explain your plot briefly and indicate the direction of your interest. Have a few specific questions ready.
  • Be open to new areas of discussion. Balance a desire to use the time wisely with a willingness to absorb whatever comes your way. Strong-arming the conversation is not the best way to improve your writing or your acquaintance with the other person.
  • Follow up. If things go well, tinker with what you’ve discussed. Then go back for more. You don’t have to use everything (or anything!) that you learn, but you’ll have more options. If things don’t go well, then still don’t forget to . . .
  • Say thank you. Send a separate email, or better yet, a card in the mail. Eventually, invite them to be a beta reader or send them a partial draft of your work. Include them in the “special thanks” section of your manuscript.

Etiquette and preparation will take you a long way in obtaining the information you need and make it more likely that your expert would be willing to help again in the future.

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