Do You Need A Writer, An SME, Or Both?
Dealing every day in technical writing, I come across a lot of esoteric requests for writing.
Clients need a 2,000 word deep dive based upon the contents of a cybersecurity conference panel about the various ways in which serverless cloud workloads can be secured.
Others require an overview of AWS’s billing structure.
The next one wants to talk about how artificial intelligence (AI) can help automate bulk processing of NDAs and other legal paperwork.
I could go on.
For every four projects I take on, there’s probably one that I have to turn down. The usual rationale: you need an SME, my friend, not a writer.
Here’s the difference.
Writers Turned Quasi SMEs
Most writers choose to specialize in a certain field. Mine is B2B technology.
They often do this because they have a strong personal interest in the field. Or because they have personal familiarity with the subject matter.
I’m a geek-at-heart Linux-using type that has a major interest in backups due to unaddressed chronic anxiety about losing my data (as soon as I hit the publish button this post will be syndicated to my blog lest Medium vanish overnight..) I’m also studying for a cloud computing certificate so know a thing or two about AWS.
I write about consumer technology products that I use. I also write about Linux. And I’ve written about backups both for myself and for clients.
Do I know more than most people about all of these fields? I would reckon yes.
Am I an “expert” in these areas? A lot of writers would brand themselves in this way but I tend to err on the side of caution.
Do I know as much about Linux as a systems administrator who has spend 20 years managing Linux servers for a major enterprise.
Consider me a writer and quasi subject matter expert (SME).
SMEs Turned Writers
On the other end of the spectrum we have Linux engineers who decide one day that they want to dabble in freelance content writing. Yes, it happens.
The existence of these creates always puzzled me somewhat. Why would somebody earning six figures want to dabble in writing?
Motivations might include:
- They like the prospect of side income
- They are trying to develop name recognition and show off their authority
- They think that writing is fun and don’t really care about the money involved
Brief The Right Projects — At The Right Budget
The difference between quasi SME writers and SMEs turned writers is really one of depth of knowledge.
Writers tend to write about several niches. This is dictated by the market more than anything. They thus tend to have good subject matter expertise about a variety of topics within their niche.
SMEs turned writers — a much rarer breed — know an awful lot about a little. Writers’ lore has it that the highest rates in writing are paid to these rare creatures. Personally, I think that’s entirely fair.
In general, the more expertise a brief requires the higher your budget should be. I’ve seen countless technology startups try to get writers to produce SME-level writing for paltry budgets. This is a trend that should be resisted. The next time a client asks you to write about the concept of angular momentum in nuclear physics — for $20 — please tell them no.
By the way:
SMEs turned writers and quasi SME writers aren’t pitched in some kind of adversarial battle. They can work well together, in fact. Clients just need to understand the differences between the two and make sure that both are being fairly compensated.
Technology clients and non-technical agency staff should:
- Know the differences between writers and SMEs.
- Know that highly technical and specialist writing costs more than generalist writing
- If agencies aren’t clear on what they need written, and what experience might be required to write it, they should speak to their clients to find out. Untechnical account mangers briefing highly technical work at an inadequate budget because they don’t understand what they’re briefing is a common problem I have encountered before.