Every once in a while, I’ll have to write about something, or even speak about something, that’s completely out of my wheelhouse. While it’s always best to avoid those situations, and to be very honest upfront about one’s capacities, every now and again I’ll be told to figure something out, or find myself in a situation where I have to. I don’t recommend purposely getting oneself into these situations, but should you find yourself there, here are some strategies I’ve used to help me in the process.
1. Seek assistance from your team. As I mentioned, it’s best to stay out of these situations to begin with, but if you do end up stuck in them, trying to get support from other people you work with is often a good bet because each of you may be able to piece together a bit of knowledge in different areas. Sharing documents and allowing people to chime in as needed can help you fill in the missing pieces.
2. Find an expert (or several experts). Whether they’re a really good friend who owes you a favor and can answer the most basic questions for you, or you understand just enough to ask the right questions, speaking with someone in the field you’re covering can help you pick up the terms people use and collect even more information to help you with your story. And if you’ve done #1, your team may be able to chime in with just the right person for you to speak with.(Obviously, properly crediting your sources is important… cupcakes and gift cards also work wonders, depending on company/editorial policy.)
3. Research, research, research. If you can’t find an expert, digging through trade journals and websites is the next best thing.. or you can do research before contacting them to make sure your questions are targeted. Don’t be that writer asking someone very obvious questions you could’ve found out about through a ten-second Google search. Setting aside several hours, if possible, is best.
4. Put the information in categories. When I taught middle school Language Arts, an activity I had my students do was write down everything they knew about a given topic on a piece of paper. They’d then circle all like items in a color. Eventually, they’d have five or six different colors, which would then turn into paragraphs. This works for your story or post as well–put everything in categories and go from there. This is particularly important if you don’t quite understand what you’re writing about. Putting vast swaths of information into categories will help you make sense of things, not spend time researching parts you don’t understand, and make it easier for your expert friends to help you sort through what you’ve gathered.
5. Create a template. I’ve done this when I was tasked with writing analyses of reports I didn’t quite understand. I downloaded about 10 previous reports and analyses and detected patterns between them. I pinpointed which information out of the reports ended up in the analysis, and created a template, with notes for myself to indicate which information came from which segment of the report. After coming up with the first few analyses of my own, I found that I could actually understand the next few quite a bit better. Other than the people I confessed to, everyone was blissfully unaware of my steep learning curve.
How about you? Any way you’ve managed to wing it?