Writing Well: Playing with the Big Kids

Playing with the Big Kids

When you're an expert in a specific subject, you have the inside track. Your audience will often give you the benefit of the doubt automatically, since you have the reputation to back up your claims.

Writer's Block

Don't pretend to be something you're not, and never, ever, lie to your readers.

For example, you believe I can teach you how to write well, since I've published over 100 books, have a doctorate in English and writing, and am a tenured university professor. But would you be so quick to believe me if I tried to teach you how to replace a hard drive, whip up a perfect crme brle, or bungee-jump off the Empire State Building? I think not. That's where my skill as a writer comes in. I have written very successful books in subjects not specifically in my area. Now you can, too. Here's how.

Author! Author!

Writers can get carried away when it comes to getting the facts. It's reputed that in 1972, Frederick Forsyth and a dozen friends attempted to oust the government of Equatorial Guinea by kidnapping President Francisco Marcias Nguema. Forsyth's plan failed, setting him back more than $200,000. Fortunately, art doesn't have to imitate life. Two years later, Forsyth published The Dogs of War, which describes a band of mercenaries who overthrow an African government by killing its president. In the book, the plot was a success.

Write Angles

You can find technical experts by contacting professional organizations, universities, and trade organizations. Don't forget alumni associations and civic groups, too. Treat the task as you would any other networking contact.

Word Watch

An abstract is a brief summary, usually no more than 125 words.

Writer's Block

Warning: Don't cite too many outside experts when you're writing outside your area of expertise. This diminishes the trust you've built with your readers.

  • Establish trust. Build a rapport with your audience by establishing your relevant credentials and experience. Either method (or both) will reassure your readers that you're qualified to write about the specific subject—even if it is out of your field.
  • Know your stuff. Do your research. For example, while writing Roots and trying to imagine how it felt to be shipped to America aboard a slave boat, Alex Haley boarded a freighter from Africa to the United States. He even got permission from the captain to spend every night stretched out naked on a plank in the cold, black ship's hole.

    You don't have to go this far, but no matter how qualified you appear to be, it won't wash in print unless you have a firm grasp on the topic. You can achieve this by making sure you're up on the latest in your field and speaking to experts.
  • Be logical. Make sense. Even if you're not trained in the field you're writing about, you'll make a more convincing case if your writing is well-organized, unified, and coherent.
  • Use sufficient details and examples. You don't have to bury your readers in minutiae. You do have to provide the fabric to fill in the framework of your thesis. For instance, I've provided a lavish number of model essays, both student and professional examples. These serve to prove my point and give you models for your own writing. I also give you specific examples, hints, and warnings.
  • Check and double-check your facts. Since you're not an expert in the field, make an extra effort to get it right. For example, I've written a number of science books for children, even though my field of expertise is humanities. I always do every experiment and demonstration I write to make sure it really does work. No exploding chemical volcanoes from my books!
  • Hire a technical editor. It's always a good idea when you're writing for a specialized audience to have a technical editor in that field look over the document. The majority of the Complete Idiot's Guides are checked by an outside technical editor. (You can find the credit in the frontmatter.)
  • Fit the format. Documents in every subject area follow a slightly different style. For example, lab reports have a special format: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Method and Materials, Results, Discussion, Conclusion, and References. Case studies in the social sciences, in contrast, start with information about the person or group being studied, followed with a history, observations, and conclusions. Case studies often end with a recommendation. You can find format and style information for each discipline in the subject area guides listed later in this section.
  • Use jargon. Yes, I know that I advised you earlier that jargon should be avoided like stiletto heels and spandex. Here's the prime directive: Always use the language that suits your audience and purpose. When you're writing papers in a specific subject area, use the technical words you need to convey your precise shade of meaning. This means you'll be dealing with some jargon.
  • Suit the tone to the subject and audience. Papers in engineering and science are impersonal, even dry, for example. Before you start to write, read a number of documents in the field to catch the tone. You can find models in technical journals, books, and monographs.
  • Consider voice. The active voice is usually preferable to the passive because it is more vigorous and concise. However, many science papers are written in the passive voice to place the subject in the foreground and the writer in the background. Often, business documents are written in the passive voice for the same reason (and to avoid having to take the fall for a deal that goes south).

Using some or all of these suggestions can help you produce brilliant writing no matter what the subject. Start small, with perhaps one or two ideas at first. Then experiment with other ideas to see which ones work best for you.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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