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The Writer as Expert

Demian Farnworth of the Copyblogger, on writing - peoplewhowrite

Demian Farnworth

Even though we know spoken words can in fact hurt more than sticks and stones, for some reason words carry even more weight when they’re “in writing.”

To put something down in black and white means there’s proof that can’t be erased. The written word can be debated and (mis)interpreted, but because it’s documented, it’s afforded all the respect of a tangible record that lives longer than the author, taking on other lives in the minds of its readers.

For this reason, writing is an art that requires careful handling of fact, even in fiction. Digital writing, with its ability to be updated/deleted and shared with infinite readers, confuses the notion of writing’s permanence, but even this confusion stems from the authority we hand over to the published word. If it’s been written, we either believe it or work to undermine its truth so no one else will believe.

All this is a preamble to two recent pieces that speak to writers’ responsibility to acquire legitimate authority in our chosen field of writing. In a post on Copyblogger, writer Demian Farnworth insists writers need to be both specialists in our respective fields and insatiably curious about things of interest outside our fields.

He specifically advises: Obsess about one subject once a year. Listen to podcasts. Follow clever people on social media. Watch educational television and documentaries. Immerse yourself in popular and obscure culture.

Writer Ben Yagoda echoes Farnworth in the NY Times‘ “Should We Write What We Know?” challenging writers to become “serial experts”.  Instead of taking the write-what-you-know axiom to mean you should write what amounts to fictionalized autobiography, Yagoda says the motto is a call to “investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority.”

But even when you’ve mastered your topic, Yagoda cautions, it doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the craft of writing. Yagoda suggests craft comes down to effective communication–“good writers (like good conversationalists) are always conscious of the person or persons on the receiving end of their words.” He elaborates:

Bad conversationalists and bad writers look out into the distance or at the floor, and don’t notice when their listeners’ faces are puzzled, annoyed or bored. Good writers perceive that and respond. And the best writers anticipate these reactions, and consequently are able to avoid them.

Even more important than holding readers’ attention with savvy raconteur skills, is the ability to enlighten with a nugget of truth or speak to a fundamental human truth.  That comes with the diligence of focused discipline, careful observation, and the vulnerability to be wrong on the way to learning how to be right–much like acquiring expertise.

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