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How to Write About Things You Know Nothing About

In the land of sunshine and rainbows, content marketers always write about topics they're well-versed in.

In the real world, we have to cover topics that fall far outside our areas of expertise -- or even interest, for that matter.

Case in point: When Instagram was getting popular back in 2011, I had to cover the app ... and didn't download Instagram onto my phone until about three weeks ago -- a full three years after I first covered what it was and how it can be used.

Real-world content marketing requires that writers step outside of their comfort zones on a regular basis, get very good at learning new things quickly, and learn how to connect with the right people that can lend insights on foreign concepts. Here's how you can do that next time you're asked to cover a subject-matter that you know nothing about. (It probably isn't too far off in the future.)

First, hit up Google and (hear me out) Facebook to perform some general research.

The first step is getting a pulse on the subject you're covering. What information exists on it already? Is there any current news about the subject that is important to consider? Does this subject have supporters and detractors, or is it a pretty benign subject?

Spend a lot of time simply reading during this step. Identify the most credible sites off of which to draw actual facts and information. This is where Facebook actually comes in handy with a new feature you may have noticed: Related Articles. Related Articles live below some of your News Feed posts.

bfhummus

See those two articles, outlined in orange, below the main article? Those popped up when I clicked "19 Easy and Delicious Hummus Recipes." If I was writing a post about hummus recipes, that recipe from The Colorful Kitchen for chocolate hummus might be a great addition I wouldn't have found otherwise. Sure, there are some hits and misses in Facebook's Related Articles, but I've been finding a lot of good sources from it recently.

There's also no harm in poking around more unsavory corners of the internet, no matter how absurd or off-base it may be -- just to get an idea of the chatter. This still helps you round out a better picture in your head of the subject-matter you're writing about. Just be sure to fact check what you read and take things with a grain of salt, you know?

Then, read social media posts to get a sense for general public opinion.

Whether the subject you're writing about has elements of controversy or you're simply trying to get a pulse on the general public's thoughts, social polls, surveys, and open-ended questions can offer some helpful insights. They'll provide context non-subject-matter experts are often lacking, fill in blanks, and even identify sources you can reach out to.

If you want to give an extra boost to this step of the research process, you can even put some paid promotion behind your questions so they get more visibility.

Find subject-matters experts to reach out to.

A quality piece of content includes expert opinions, so you'll need subject-matter experts you can contact for interviews and fact checks. Go for a mix of "stretch" contacts and easy-to-attain contacts.

For instance, you should ask people you know if they can introduce you to someone. One or two of those is likely to pan out because it's a referral. You should also find an internal contact -- someone who works at your company, or a close contact you know personally -- as that is almost 100% guaranteed to come through.

Finally, reach out to people on social media or via email for a quote or interview, even if you don't have an intro. These are your "stretch" contacts, but if you get just one conversation from the efforts, it'll add a new point of view from which your writing will benefit. Whatever the mix of people you end up working with, they'll help you uncover the things you didn't know you didn't know.

When it comes to the interview, prepare questions so you can make the most of your time together. And when the conversation ends, ask for two things: whether they'd be willing to answer any follow-up questions should they arise, and whether they'd be willing to perform a fact check for you once the piece is complete.

Note: It's important to do this after you've done significant research on your own. Time is precious, and sources will be loathe to help you again in the future if you waste their time asking questions you could find the answer to on your own with just a little research.

Accumulate reliable data and relevant quotes to act as your voice of authority.

You're not a subject-matter expert, so your credibility can't come from personal experience. You need it to come from others' experience and knowledge. Here are some ways to find good data and quotes:

  • Use Factbrowser. It's a search engine that allows you to search for data points, broken down by industry.
  • Go to credible sites and perform a site:search on the topic about which you're writing. If you don't know how to perform a site:search, this article will show you how.
  • Ask your sources for quotes. Be sure to ask for permission to quote them.
  • When you encounter links within articles, particularly links to studies or reports, open them in another tab. They're excellent places to continue your reading as you gather background information, but also typically have relevant data points you can incorporate in the content.

Now, you're ready to start writing your piece.

You've done you reading, you've talked to experts, you've polled for public opinion -- you even have some juicy data to pepper into your post. It's time to start writing.

I presume you've been taking notes on everything you've researched up to this point. If you're anything like me, you'll find that, to some degree, you already have a written piece. In other words, all the components are there, you simply have to whip it into a coherent narrative.

This is why I like to take notes all in one place -- in fact, I often do it right in our content editor so there's no copy/pasting later on. I simply move things around to start to form my story, mark any places where I need to do some more follow-up research, and delete extraneous portions as I start weaving the story together.

Finally, get a fact check.

Even after performing your own fact check, you should submit the piece for a second fact check -- you're not a subject-matter expert, after all. This can go to an editor, or to a subject-matter expert that said they would be willing to perform this duty. I like to ask them to look for two things:

  1. Is anything in this piece that is factually inaccurate?
  2. Are there any glaring ommissions in this piece that another expert would consider a red flag?

That second question helps you catch those "you don't know what you don't know" moments that occur when you're writing about something foreign to you.

Perform any additional edits that come back from this fact check, and voila!

Writing about subjects you know little or nothing about is certianly more difficult and time-consuming than writing about the things yo know and love. But it's a great way to get exposure to new ideas, learn, and get connected with people you otherwise might not.

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