As a copywriter, I’m a generalist and have run into situations where I am asked to write on a subject I know nothing about. At first, I panicked and thought they would figure out I was a fraud and I’d be fired.
I have been a copywriter with ThoughtLab for roughly seven years now, and I came to it blind. Sure, I have written before; I spent ten years as a writer for Disney. I was also a freelance writer penning anything from a Vodka ad campaign to bodice-ripping tales for a Swedish company that had me write mild erotica for women. These erotic stories needed to be short enough to read on a train ride from home to the office or the other way around and still engaging. For that gig, I also had to write as a woman. So I’ve had experience across multiple life areas as a writer.
As a copywriter, I’m a generalist and have run into situations where I am asked to write on a subject I know nothing about. At first, I panicked and thought they would figure out I was a fraud and I’d be fired. Then, over time, I understood that my job title is copywriter, not master of everything that has ever happened or will happen on earth. What I’m saying is you don’t need to know everything about everything as a copywriter.
Of late, I have been writing a lot about creativity, as ThoughtLab is a creative agency, and the CEO wants to showcase our authority on the subject. This is great. I’ve been an actor/writer/director/fight director my entire life, so I have some ease writing about this subject. So, when I write a blog about creative brainstorming or how creativity takes risks and courage, I feel very comfortable writing from my own experiences and pulling stories from my past. This is my wheelhouse, so to speak.
But what happens when you’re faced with a task where you’re called to write on a subject you know nothing about? If you’re working freelance, you may have more leeway to pick topics that you know better and stay within your strengths. If you’re with an agency, like me, you can’t tell your boss, you know, I don’t want to write about this subject. Chances are your boss will say, I don’t want to pay you, and I want to find someone who will write on this subject.
There will be times when you’re faced with a subject that is not only unfamiliar but so far out of your comfort zone that you have no understanding of it at all. When this happens, you don’t need to quit; you just need to relax, believe in your writing skills, and you can still write some good content on this wildly unfamiliar subject.
Keep the communication with the client wide open and flowing. Don’t worry about asking too many questions; the client does not expect you to be an expert at their business. They expect you to take raw information and turn it into an informative narrative that will engage and inform the reader. So, asking questions isn’t going to reveal your great secret that you know nothing about the movement of subatomic particles in a frozen semifluid. No one expects you to know everything; that’s not your job description.
Your client knows the subject matter. Most likely, they have been in their business for years, if not decades, and they will know more about it than you ever will. So, keep communicating with them. The last thing you want to do is produce work for a client’s website full of technical errors or misinformation about their industry. Keeping in constant communication allows you to learn the vital stats about the business without actually becoming employed by the client and starting a new career.
The client is always the best place to start. Interview them, send them questions to answer, and just listen as much as possible; they will give you a great headstart.
As a creative, which a copywriter is, you should always be curious. Curiosity, they say, killed the cat, but curiosity feeds the creative soul. You will be doing yourself a favor, as a creative, to keep asking questions and keep reading. Stay curious.
Part of staying curious is reading. A good writer is also an avid reader. As an actor, I am constantly reading about history, people’s jobs, and biographies, so I know more about the characters I’m playing. As a copywriter, my reading habit has served me well. It is just a reflex for me to read about a subject, even if I already know something about it.
Read books and magazines and, especially, for speed, blogs. I guarantee you that if you’re writing about something, someone has already written about it before. Industry blogs are excellent sources of information and inspiration. They can jumpstart your article and send you in the right research direction. It’s not cheating to use another writer’s blog as research as it is not cheating to use reference material to write a term paper. You're fine if you use the blog as inspiration and research and not just copy it.
I start my day by reading an article on a subject I know nothing about. I cannot stress enough that reading will make your copywriting life easier. You're giving yourself a headstart even if you learn a little about many things. Keep reading.
Get an Expert
One of the best ways to get the information you need to create great content is to ask an expert. Talking with the client is excellent, but it can only get you so far. They will be focused on their business, and they will give you plenty of good information. Talking to an expert will provide you with a broader view of the industry as a whole. This 3000-foot view of an industry will give you a broader perspective you can get more specific about when writing about your client’s business.
As for finding an expert, here are a few ways of getting in contact with one,
- Ask your client for a referral.
- Throw out a message on LinkedIn to people in the field
- Facebook or other social media venues are a good resource
- Dig into your personal, real-life network
Once you’ve made the connection, don’t be shy; jump in and start asking questions.
Start With Basics
When you’re coming into a writing assignment on a topic you are woefully unfamiliar with, start with the basics. The old reporter's mantra of the five W’s is perfect. Find out the who, what, when, where, and why of the subject and go from there.
When you approach this new subject, don’t be afraid to ask the questions that make you feel stupid to ask. People always say there are no dumb questions, but we all know sometimes we ask a question that makes us feel dumb to ask. Well, ask those questions. Don’t try to pass yourself off as knowledgeable on the subject; that’ll cause you trouble down the line.
I used to write complex and deeply inside questions for experts, trying to appear smart and worldly. This is a colossal mistake. The experts assumed I knew something about the subject, so they spoke to me like someone with experience, using jargon unfamiliar to me. Pride made me do this, and pride caused me to do extra work because my interview with the expert went entirely over my head. Ask stupid questions, and don't pretend; you’ll get better results.
Also, if you’re talking with an expert, they will be open with you and free-flowing with their information if you’re honest and tell them you know nothing but you’re truly curious. People, as a rule, like to talk about what they do; they take pride in it and welcome those who are curious. Unless they are a spy, then don’t ask.
Here are a few basic questions to get you started.
- Why is that important?
- What does that mean?
- How does that type of situation make you feel?
- What happened then?
Show Your Work
If time permits, show your work to someone in the field that is not your client. The client will look for specific information about their business in the field. A neutral expert will take a larger view and see more details than the client.
Getting an outside eye on the work is very helpful when you know nothing about the subject matter; they can tell you; you sound confused or like you know nothing. Or they can say, you fake this well.
A bit of caution here when getting someone’s opinion. It’s just their opinion. Even if they are an expert, it is an opinion. If the person you’re showing the article to starts commenting on things other than the facts and the subject, such as sentence structure and word choice, it’s okay if you decide to ignore that. If they say something like, well, I would have written it this way. Great, they can go write the article that way. You are a writer, you know how to write, you just don’t know this subject well, and that’s what you need help with. Not basic composition.
I send this caution because when you’re in unfamiliar territory, it’s easy to become timid and forget that you know what you’re doing and get trampled by people. An unfamiliar situation can quickly spark a bought of imposter syndrome. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to keep your expert on topic.
Off You Go
There you have it, some easy ways to drop the worry and write about subjects you know nothing about. It’s basically research, asking questions, dropping some industry terms, do not try to write more information than you’re comfortable with, do not pass yourself off as an expert, and just writing.
If you’re looking for knowledgeable and well-read copywriters for your blog, website or business, talk to ThoughtLab. We have curious, creative, weird, driven copywriters that will lend credence to your subject and spin beautiful words that engage and get people doing. Set up a free consultation with ThoughtLab today, see further, and write better.