Most special-interest magazines look for "expert" commentary on the subjects they cover. But even if you lack a professional's expertise on a particular topic, your chances of making a sale may still be better than you think. When I edited a pet magazine, I preferred non-expert writers to non-writer experts, because such writers offered expertise in six critical areas:
1) Understanding. If you're writing for a market you're familiar with, you may have a better understanding of the needs and interests of its audience than an "expert." You have a sense of what needs to be communicated to people like yourself--and how. For example, suppose that you're a cat owner writing about a feline disease for a cat magazine. While a veterinarian could tell readers about the pathology of the disease, you know how this information might affect other cat owners. As an expert in cat ownership, you can determine whether it is more important to focus on recognizing the symptoms of the disease, providing preventive treatment for your cat or the environment, or treating the cat when it becomes ill.
2) Communication. Writers serve as translators between the technical experts and the audience. That veterinarian you interview may tell you all about histolytes and platelets and blood counts, but such information won't help your audience until you've translated it into language the pet owner understands--and framed it in a context that makes the information meaningful.
3) Personal Experience. Experts often don't provide information as to how the subject in question actually affects the lives of ordinary people. Writers, on the other hand, often develop a topic based on an experience they've had--what you learned when your cat contracted a particular disease, for example. Thus, you know that an article on "how to give cats shots" will not have as much impact as an article on feline diabetes that follows one pet owner's experience with the illness, including how she learned to give her cat regular insulin injections. Even if you haven't had a specific experience, you have a shared background with your readers that will help you communicate what readers need to know. You share their fears and concerns, and thus can express the answers or information a reader needs to deal with those concerns.
4) Balance. An article written by a "leading authority" on a particular subject may be brilliant, but one-sided. Writers, however, can examine controversies from all sides, following up leads and exploring various angles by interviewing experts with differing opinions or in different fields. For your article on feline diseases, for example, you might interview not only a veterinarian, but also a cat breeder, and perhaps some cat owners who have coped with their pets' illnesses. Thus, your article may present more information and more options than that written by an "expert."
5) Tact. Some experts simply aren't good communicators, while others don't understand the need to match their prose to the needs of the magazine's audience. Such "experts" often do not take kindly to having their work edited, either for content or for clarity. This makes it difficult for editors to work with them--and often makes them reluctant to work with the magazine again. However, writing clearly and working with editors to polish and refine your prose is part of a writer's job. If you take that job seriously, editors will find you a joy to work with, and will come back to you again and again with new assignments--and let you handle the difficulties of talking to experts!
6) Flexibility. Experts, by definition, are specialists. An editor won't be able to go back to the person who provided an article on dermatology, and ask for another article on obedience training. A writer's expertise, however, can be transferred from one subject to another with ease. Prove yourself able to handle two or three "expert" articles on different subjects, and you'll be one of the first writers an editor thinks of when the opportunity arises for a challenging assignment.
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in Writer's Digest.