When you hear the word “expert,” you might think of someone like Surya Bonaly, the only figure skater in the world who has successfully landed a backflip on one skate. Maybe you think of LeBron James, who was drafted for the NBA straight out of high school, or Yo-Yo Ma, who started learning the cello at age four and performed in front of two US presidents by age five.
With examples like these, you might have a hard time thinking of yourself as an expert in any field. But as a freelance writer, you’re often expected to sound like an expert on any given subject—a mean feat to pull off when you want to write as many articles as possible, as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, not everyone has to be a child prodigy to become an expert in his or her field. Author Sue Monk Kidd didn’t publish her first novel until she was 53. Stan Lee didn’t start to create his own comic book characters until he was 43. Andrea Bocelli didn’t take up singing until he was in his 30s, and Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish a single “Little House on the Prairie” book until her 60s.
These examples prove that, no matter your age, you can become a writing and research expert at any time. And, with a little help from our tips below, you can sound like an expert on any subject you write about.
1. Research, Research, Research
If you were writing a college essay for a history class on something you know next to nothing about—say, the current civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo—where would you start?
You can’t travel to Congo to do firsthand research. If you’re not from Congo or any nearby countries, you might not have heard about the conflict before. You don’t have time to become an expert on Central African politics and history if the paper is due in a week or two. What do you do?
First, even if you don’t know anything about the topic, you know enough to Google an obvious search term like “Congo civil war.” Luckily for you, you don’t even have to click on any of the search results to get a general sense of the conflict. Google creates a Knowledge Graph that briefly overviews the situation, including where it’s taking place and when it started. The sidebar also shows you relevant search terms that you wouldn’t have known enough to Google initially, like “Kivu conflict” and “M23 rebellion.”
Scanning the descriptions beneath the URLs on the first-page results helps too. Without clicking on a single search result, you’ll learn when the conflict started (1998), who some of the key players are (President Kabila), and how many people have been affected by the war (3 to 5 million people).
So how does this process relate to blog writing?
Start exactly where you would with a college essay on a tricky topic: research. Google is your friend here. If you’re working in HVAC, plumbing, or medical industries, think of relevant search terms for general blog topics, like “HVAC problems,” “common plumbing emergencies,” or longer questions like “what do foot doctors treat?”
Before you do anything else, read the descriptions beneath the URLs. What stands out to you? Are there any more specific topics that interest you? Narrow your search by Googling the most interesting terms you find in those overviews.
Basic Internet research won’t immediately make you an expert in a topic. However, it will give you the foundation you need to write confidently about a topic. And the more you research, the more information you’ll glean about any given vertical. With time, you won’t need to Google search the basics—you’ll have those down pat, which is the first step to becoming an expert on any topic.
2. Put Your Knowledge into Practice
Have you heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert on a subject? Some researchers disagree on whether this principle is true—after all, if you don’t give your full attention to the subject you want to improve in, 10,000 hours won’t be effective. Still, the more time you invest in something, the more your brain remembers it, and the better you get at performing the action.
Practice this tactic with research. The more time you invest in researching, the better you’ll get at it. Similarly, the more you write on a topic, the more you’ll improve until you can consider yourself an expert writer for that field.
But you can also employ this tactic with the topics you research.
For instance, if you write a lot of plumbing articles, do more than research and write—try some of the techniques you write about yourself. If you write about checking for leaks, check for them in your own home. If you write about methods to unclog a drain, test them out. You’ll figure out which tactics work and which don’t, and you will have hands-on perspective that can generate more thoughtful questions and angles from which to approach your articles.
That’s the sweet spot—when you can delve deeper into your topic than the basic answers you find through a cursory Google search.
This technique works for much more than just blog writing. If you’re writing a novel featuring a character who does archery, do more than read about archery techniques. Watch YouTube videos, check out movies like “Brave,” go to your local Medieval or Renaissance Fair to watch archers at work—even sign up for a few classes at your nearby archery range.
The more you practice what you read about, the better you’ll get at it. You might not log 10,000 hours on archery or plumbing, but the more hours you can devote to a subject, the more experienced you’ll get, and the more expert you’ll become with time.
3. Be Deliberate
To become an expert, you have to do more than log hours. You have to practice your tasks deliberately and with focus.
If you want to become an expert writer, don’t split your writing time between writing and watching TV. Focus on one task at a time—when you’re practicing, just practice, and do nothing else.
However, “being deliberate” means doing even more than putting your knowledge into practice. It also involves researching what a certain skill entails. If you want to be a great writer, read books on writing, evaluate the writing in your favorite novels, attend writing workshops, try your hand at writing exercises, and visit an author’s lecture at your local library or a nearby college.
Similarly, if you want to sound like an expert in whatever you write about, you should deliberately work to improve. Do the basic Google research we suggested in step one, but try doing deeper research when you have the time. Check out more in-depth books from your library on the topics you write about most frequently. Browse instruction manuals. Set aside time to research blog topics that deliver the most SEO value and what professionals look for in great guest blogs. Talk to professionals in the fields you write about most frequently. Visit forum discussions or Q&A threads on the topic for insight into the questions and problems others are searching for on that subject.
Remember Surya Bonaly, the expert figure skater? Bonaly practiced for years to get her one-footed backflip just right, and it paid off. Even though the International Skating Union banned the move on the grounds that it was both too dangerous and too unique, Bonaly remains one of the foremost and most decorated ice skaters in the world.
No matter what field you go into or what topic you write about, aim to be the Surya Bonaly of your area of expertise. Put these tips into practice to stand out in your field and, with time, become an expert.