Not every writer is an expert. Not every expert is a writer.
So as more and more people turn to the internet for their information – and more and more of them learn how to separate the trustworthy sources from the not-so-reliable – it’s essential that if you’re set on publishing what you have to say about Topic X, you can do so in a way readers can count on.
This is not a post about how to sound like you have background knowledge when you don’t – quite the opposite, actually. There are many, many intelligent people in this world who really struggle to communicate their expertise – because they just aren’t trained to structure their information in a way that supports their legitimate credibility.
So here’s how to start improving on this skill – and how to tell when a writer doesn’t actually know as much about what they’re talking about as they claim to.
Site your sources, but don’t data dump
One of the first things you learned in English class was that no piece of data should ever appear without a backup source – you know this. It’s a no-brainer, and I’m not going to get into proper research techniques in this post. However, data is an excellent tool for beginning writers to start building off of. Maybe you’re not technically an expert in your field, but experts’ research on a topic you’re writing about (at least the abstract) is publicly accessible for a reason. Use these things to your advantage.
What you don’t want to do, however, is data dump. Imagine sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor drone on and on about something you just don’t get. That’s how a reader feels when a writer just sits there and spits facts out at them, with no regard to how they might react to that.
You’ve seen data dumping, though you probably didn’t realize what it was. It’s essentially an article in which every other sentence sites a study, fact or statistic as if the goal is to fire off as much information about a single topic in one paragraph as possible. It’s dry, it’s often unhelpful and confusing, and it’s overwhelming – not to mention it’s a sign that the writer is pretty good at summarizing someone else’s facts, but doesn’t fully understand their implications or how their audience can make use of them.
As they say, the best way to understand something is to teach it – or in our case, write about it. If you’re writing about something you don’t completely understand, spend some time summarizing it a few different ways until it makes sense to you when you read it back. I still have to do this when I’m trying to explain simple biochemistry to non-scientists – whether you’re an expert on the subject or not, you have to be able to explain not only that a fact exists, but why a reader should care.
If you’re writing about an opinion or theory, use concrete examples
Not everything you’re going to write about has a scientific study to back it up. Especially if you have a blog like this one, where the focus isn’t to inform as much as it is to assist and encourage. But that doesn’t mean you can just create a bunch of list posts and expect every viewer to automatically trust you – you have to include examples, both for the purposes of credibility AND applicability.
One benefit of having a blog is that you can convey your expertise through your own personal experience. I do this all the time here when I address #writingstruggles – because I need to be able to prove that I fully understand what my audience is going through. Practical, real-world examples are what give sustenance to both facts and opinions in any context. If I’m going to write about overcoming failure, I’m going to talk about the time a client slammed me for doing something wrong and what I learned from that experience.
And of course, if you’re trying to persuade and/or encourage someone to do something, you not only need to make the information you give actionable – you need to give people examples to follow. When I write about health, I don’t just talk about what HIIT workouts are and why they’re good for you. I show readers how they can start interval training and how to find a good fit for it in their schedules.
Someone who doesn’t have a ton of background on a topic won’t use very many helpful examples to help readers put their information into practice – a major red flag to keep an eye out for.
If there’s probable cause for debate, address both sides
If you’re writing to persuade, information comes along with that package. “I’m right and you’re wrong” doesn’t get you very far online, thankfully. No one will ever take you seriously if you continuously publish one-sided arguments about topics people are interested in reading about. I don’t just sit here and tell you writer’s block doesn’t exist – I explain that it’s easy to come up with an excuse for not doing your work when you’re unwilling to identify underlying barriers to your productivity. I look at things through your point of view and then share that viewpoint.
The reason I love Philip DeFranco (well, one reason of many) is that whenever he covers something controversial in his videos, both sides of every argument are ALWAYS key components. Some people are saying this, but others say that. If you’re doing commentary, then of course you’re going to give your opinion as well – but there’s something to be said for creators who are willing to both understand and give name to things other than what they support/believe.
You can’t just approach a topic claiming something is wrong without going into why some people believe it’s right. That’s not how arguments work. The reason people still believe you’re not supposed to eat eggs because of cholesterol believe that because of outdated science we once thought was accurate. When you say that, some people – not everyone, because this is Earth – will be persuaded to change their thought process. You can’t change someone’s mind using your words unless you know enough about what you’re writing about to debunk every single counter-argument a reader might throw at you (because they will).
I want to know what you think. What makes you trust someone’s blog or articles? What makes you question and/or dismiss a writer’s credibility online?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.