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Content Process

How to collaborate with a Subject Matter Expert

Ellen de Vries • 5 minutes

Can you think of any project scenarios where it might be dangerous, life-threatening or life-altering for a content writer not to sit down with a subject matter expert (SME) and write together?

Here’s one scenario. Imagine you’ve got a flat tyre. You’re standing by the roadside and you open the manual (on your phone, or on paper, or on the handy interface on your dashboard). Unfortunately you discover that the language is so far leftfield from your human understanding of the English language that you put the instructions away and try to figure it out yourself. Likewise, you could have opened up that manual and discovered it was beautifully designed, but clearly written by someone who had no understanding of your car’s unique anatomy. Equally useless.

You could translate this tyre-changing scenario to other awkward situations such as advisory content for medical procedures, or advice for citizens about employment law.

Hopefully these scenarios show that working collaboratively with Subject Matter Experts is essential, rather than a ’nice to have’ in any content project.

Working collaboratively with Subject Matter Experts is essential in any content project

So how do you go about setting up the process in a structured and fruitful way?

How the collaborative process begins

Here’s an example from one of my projects, back in the day.

It’s 2009. I’ve been tasked with creating several page templates for a major brand associated with pregnancy testing and fertility advice. I find this a little daunting because I don’t have a medical background. Luckily I have Jane as my collaborator, a fertility expert who has access to all the information we need. We set up a co-writing session and set to work.

The traditional workflow for a project like this might be to run a workshop with Jane, then go away and wrestle the workshop results into a document, then send the output to her for approval. This would be one way to work, but I choose to run it differently this time.

I have her booked in for a day so I choose to compose sentences together with her as raw form content. We also spend some time chunking and splicing resource materials. We sit side by side at the table with a pad of A3 in front of us, a box of sharpies and some scissors.

There are several reasons for doing this kind of collaborative writing in the same room as a subject matter expert:

1) A structured brain dump saves time

As a content writer you may have a clearer idea of the basic information architecture and the content design of your pages than your SME. Guiding your SME with a table of contents, an IA or page tables means you can extract raw materials from them in a structured fashion. You may want to work with them to craft bullet point messages per section.

2)  Spend less time reviewing by getting the SME invested

The more you work together with your SME in person the less time you will need to spend to-ing and fro-ing in the review phase. Personal investment from SMEs and building their trust in your adaptation of their subject matter is a crucial.

3) Get authentic language, tone and register straight from the outset

Not too complex. Not too simple. Your SME is likely to have a stronger insight into your audience’s level of understanding than you, so they will have a fair idea of the level to pitch it at.

An SME is likely to have a stronger insight into your audience’s level of understanding than you

4) Reduce the margin for error, and embrace the nuances

The best writers, content strategists and curators are chameleons; their skill is to interpret any kind of complex information and rearrange it for easy consumption. However, your subject matter expert might offer you facts, nuances and even creative ideas on presentation. Jane had some great ideas for interactive diagrams.

5) Let the expert do the chunking to reduce digression

This is what the scissors are for. By allowing your subject matter expert to have an influence over the way the content is broken down, you avoid digression and manage their expectations on the level of detail you can go into. Jane had some great ideas for storytelling devices to accompany our work.

Planning your co-writing session

You need to look after your co-writer before you start your writing session together, they may not be used to writing, or have any idea what they are about to get involved in. Here’s a checklist of things to prepare so that you create the right conditions for a productive writing session.

Set their expectations

Give your SME a clear sense of what to expect, and how much you’d like them to be involved as the project progresses.

  • Reassure your SME that they don’t need to know how to write, it’s their expertise that is important
  • Set their expectations on how long you want them to be involved in the session for, and let them know about timelines on the project
  • Set their expectations on how you’ll be structuring the day
    including plenty of breaks

Bring the things you need

Fortify your co-writing session with all the resources you can, this may include competitors’ analyses, personas and any offline materials you’ve been able to get hold of.

  • Ask them to bring along any resource materials they feel might support the cause
  • Print out any resources and page tables you already have
  • Bring plenty of stationery, sticky notes and a laptop
  • Tell them you will have a selection of healthy snacks

Create the right environment

The best writing sessions need the right conditions to help the writers thrive:

  • Tell them you’ve booked a room where you won’t be interrupted
  • Ask your SME to bring any support materials with them that might be relevant, including offline brochures or training packs

How to co-write with your SME

Having a framework or a structure to work with before you start can be very helpful, and make the process much less daunting for both of you.

It can be helpful to start by creating a table of contents with your SME; categories they feel need to be covered, or a list of ingredients that you hope to tackle from page tables or templates you already have. Prioritise the ones you’d like to work on together.

Once you start writing together, the shape your content takes will depend on the story you are trying to tell. Decide in advance how you are going to make notes, or build your skeleton.

Here are some alternative methods for figuring out the structure of the work you’ll do with your SME.

Mind Maps

The joy of a mind-map is that it’s not linear. It frees up the mind to establish links between disparate concepts.

Storyboards

If you need to describe a process, sketching a quick storyboard can help you figure out which content (or even micro-copy) you need to focus on with your SME.

Bullet points

This is the most common way to begin. Having a list of bullet points to flesh out together is often the quickest route to starting.

Are there any rules for the collaboration?

There are only two rules for this process.

1. ‘Do’ rather than ‘talk about doing’. You can always go and fix it later. This means that at any one time one of the members of the collaboration is putting pen to paper and writing.

2. To be truly collaborative in the process, follow the rule of ‘Hold things tightly, let go lightly’ (A lesson I learned from a choreographer) This means that it’s important that you both offer ideas constantly throughout the process, and let go of any ideas that are not taken up immediately.

Now that you’re fully equipped to set up a collaborative session with your Subject Matter Expert, you may want to experiment with your method. Read this pair-writing post by Jonathan Kahn to discover one of the methods he uses.

Good luck!

How to collaborate with a Subject Matter Expert

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About the Author

Ellen de Vries

Content Strategist, Clearleft

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