The Managing Editor’s Guide to Working with Subject Matter Experts

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If I had a quarter for every hour I’ve spent listening to various experts drop some knowledge on their subject of choice, I’d never have to worry about where my Aldi shopping cart coins would come from again. From food manufacturing to biopharmaceuticals to laboratory medicine — and many, many other subjects in between — I would be awash in quarters, my pockets drooping with those shiny pieces.

I’m always happy to listen to these experts — subject matter experts (or SMEs*), some might call them, with their knowledge and know-how honed to often very specific subspecialties. For one thing, they’re often interesting topics. For another, these experts are ultra-passionate about what they do, and are eager to share what they know; their enthusiasm is, frankly, contagious. And as someone who develops content for a living, I want to harness that enthusiasm and share their knowledge with a wider audience.

But here’s the problem: Experts? Not always the best at translating their specialized knowledge into content that makes sense for an audience broader than themselves. I’ve found that many experts are very attached to their ideas and how they should be presented, which can make it challenging to partner with them to create engaging content.

So what’s a managing editor to do? Let’s take a look at three common pitfalls of working with experts, and how to handle them.

The Communication Problem

Here’s the most common challenge I encounter: the expert has wonderful thoughts and ideas — but can’t convey them coherently.

Not everyone is a writer. We get that. And that’s why we edit. But then there are the times when an expert author submits something that just doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s too jargon-y.** Or maybe it’s too scattered. Whatever the case, having a clear set of author guidelines is your first best bet in avoiding this pitfall.

Melissa Stutzbach, program manager at the American Occupational Therapy Association, started OT Student Pulse, a monthly email newsletter that goes out to 26,000 members. She says they have author guidelines that outline the publication’s style and tone. The guidelines also include content ideas and get down to the nitty gritty, like how to package a message, or how to break up paragraphs — especially helpful for experts who are talented in their field, but not as familiar with writing in a newsletter format. “We make it clear that this is not a research paper,” Melissa says.

Kelly Swails, editor of Lablogatory, encountered an author who was clearly passionate about her subject area, but that passion translated into “writing that was all over the place,” she says. “The paper would start in one place, meander to another topic, and end on something completely different. There was just no coherence at all, which was really frustrating. She clearly knew her stuff, but couldn’t convey it in a clear way.” In this instance, Kelly says, she picked one topic within the paper and edited with that concept in mind. Sharing feedback with experts is key, and Kelly says she’s in a unique position, working with laboratory professionals — those who run diagnostic tests that determine diagnoses — whose jobs require the utmost accuracy.

“They have very little room for error in their own jobs, so they appreciate being told what can and can’t be done, or if something needs to be done within certain parameters,” she explains. “They value the concept of a ‘right’ way to do things, so it’s generally not a problem if I say something needs to be made clearer or we need to shorten an article.”

The Political Problem

Here’s another challenge I see a lot: the expert has something to say — but their point of view is controversial or tough to swallow.

One great thing about working with experts outside of your organization is you get a fresh perspective on topics. But that perspective may not always be one that your organization endorses. And here is where honesty and transparency in the managing editor/content developer-expert relationship are key.

“We’ve had authors whose tone is too negative or who make points that conflict with the principles of our organization,” Melissa says. When that happens, she adds, she consults with other staff to make sure she’s not alone in her interpretation of the article. And if it remains an issue, she notes, “I am transparent with the author about the underlying issues, and provide suggestions for improvement.” And, she admits, she sometimes loses authors at that point. “But I chalk it up as the author wasn’t a good fit for our newsletter.”

For Kelly, it’s often not how an expert contributor says something — it’s that they won’t say anything. Sometimes, she says, “SMEs don’t want to discuss something because of potential political or legal fallout.” She gives the example of when Theranos first hit nationwide media. As a former medical laboratory scientist herself, Kelly was wary of the company’s claims. “I tried on a number of occasions to get experts in the clinical laboratory medicine field to discuss the company, but while everyone was happy to speak off the record, no one wanted to go on record, so my articles and blog posts never came to fruition.”

As the ones leading the content charge, we have to be aware that while we think something might make for a great story, pursuing it could be damaging or detrimental to the expert’s job.

The Deadline Problem

And finally, we’ve all worked with an expert who flagrantly disregards deadlines — and doesn’t understand why you find that concerning.

You could be as clear as the morning sun with your expert about which stages of the content are due. Perhaps they turn in something a few days late. Not a big deal. But maybe it’s aggressively late, say a week or two or longer, and they’ve ghosted on you completely. Sadly, I’ve run into this more times than I can count, and it can be absolutely panic-inducing if you’re not prepared.

When working with experts who are not professional writers, it’s important to have a backup plan. That backup plan may mean soliciting articles from more experts than needed for a publication, and holding any overflow for another project. It’s keeping a cache of reliable experts in your rolodex*** to call on when you’re in a pickle.

Melissa says if an expert doesn’t come through with the promised material, she has the option to run content from past years, or link to external content from other publications. But, she adds, “We make sure we clearly articulate deadlines and try to line up articles a month or two in advance to make sure we have breathing room for deadlines that inevitably slip.”

And once the ghosted expert emerges from nowhere, don’t be too quick to burn that bridge — you never know when you may need to tap into their expertise again.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

The best thing you can do for your relationship with an expert is to be honest and clear about what you need and expect from them. You want them to do a good job, they want to do a good job, but developing content is our area of expertise. It’s up to you as an editor to set experts up for success.

“Be transparent with authors, and upfront about expectations, deadlines, style, tone and the organization of the content,” Melissa says. And if you’re not sure the content is on the right track, bounce ideas off of other content experts before putting a lot of work into the piece. “Be careful not to go down the wormhole of heavy editing to shape an article that is low quality. Recognize when it’s time to move on, and focus on more promising pieces,” she says.

“Practice honest compassion,” Kelly says. “Schedules can be hard to juggle, sometimes it’s a struggle to edit experts who aren’t writers, personalities clash, but at the end of the day we all want to get the information out there.” Respect experts’ time, she adds, while being honest about your needs and expectations.

*Not the same as Captain Hook’s oddball sidekick in Peter Pan.
**Down with jargon! If managing editors had a battle cry, that would probably be it.
***Do they still make those?

Molly Olson is the managing editor of Lab Medicine, and the senior editor of Critical Values magazine. She lives in Chicago.

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