A Writing-Competence Matrix

By Mark Nichol

The effectiveness of any nonfiction manuscript is contingent on at least three factors: the writer’s level of expertise in the subject matter, their reportorial aptitude, and their writing ability. (By extension, the performance of other potential contributors — a developmental editor, a copy editor, a proofreader — in the execution of their responsibilities is also significant. Consider references to “the writer” here to mean the editorial “committee” that participates in the development of a given formally produced writing project.)

Subject-Matter Expertise

The writer’s level of expertise may be at one of three levels: expert, learner, or amateur.

The subject-matter expert may or may not have professional or scholarly credentials. However, the writer is assumed to be knowledgeable about the writing project’s topic to the extent that no further corroborative research (fact-checking) is necessary.

The expert may benefit from some guidance from a developmental editor regarding the need to acquire additional data, but they are virtually self-sufficient when it comes to collecting and utilizing background material. An example of an expertly researched project is a work of scholarly writing produced by a university professor that pertains to their area of expertise.

The subject-matter learner is a generalist who has a well-developed facility for acquiring the background knowledge and an aptitude for understanding the topic to the extent that they can write about it authoritatively, although a moderate amount of fact-checking may be necessary.

A developmental editor may need to consult with the learner about additional or more effective research methods and the extent to which sources are utilized, but the learner has a good grasp of the necessity of thorough research and documentation. An example of a learner’s writing is a magazine article written about a new technological breakthrough by a lay writer who covers such subject matter.

A subject-matter amateur, however, also a generalist, may lack the skill to develop a sufficient understanding of the topic and may therefore produce an inadequate manuscript, and the writing project may require extensive revision based on additional research, if such a step is taken at all.

The amateur may need to be reminded about backing up the manuscript with corroborating research, and may require extensive guidance as to how to acquire the necessary data. An example of this level of writing is a newspaper article about the controversy surrounding a complicated legal issue by a reporter with no background in legislation or public policy.

Reportorial Aptitude

The same three levels of competence apply in terms of reporting skills.

An expert reporter understands the scope of the manuscript assignment and how to obtain information from sources, whether people or documents. They also have the expertise and training to successfully draw valuable material from interview subjects and other sources of information. The expert usually requires little or no guidance from a developmental editor in organizing their approach to obtaining direct information.

A learner reporter may need some guidance in strategizing how to determine who to interview, and how, but has an aptitude for comprehending how to gather data, insights, and comments, and will be able to competently carry on a conversation with people in possession of the information they need.

An amateur reporter may be largely ignorant of the significance of the topic and may be at a loss as to where to begin and where to progress from that beginning once it is discovered, and may not have a knack for preparing for interviews and, worse, for digressing from stock questions to follow interesting new tangents. A developmental editor may need to provide extensive advice about obtaining firsthand information.

Writing Ability

A writer’s skill in composition can also be judged on these three levels.

An expert writer is able to seamlessly integrate background research with information collected in the course of consulting with interview subjects and, just as important, has the aptitude for crafting a deftly organized and eloquently and elegantly written manuscript with a consistent tone, an authoritative voice, and an effective argument or presentation. The expert will likely need a minimum of assistance in developing a manuscript.

The learner writer, although they have not necessarily mastered the craft of writing, recognizes the fundamentals of assembling a manuscript from raw materials and, possessing some talent in ordering their thoughts and expressing them effectively, should need no more than a moderate amount of developmental aid.

The amateur writer often requires extensive coaching in the art of writing. The amateur may lack a command of the basic rules of grammar and syntax, and is likely to have only a modest vocabulary and an insufficient amount of creativity to craft effective prose, failing to understand how active sentence construction, concise description, and vivid word choices enhance a composition.

Conclusion

Before a book proposal is accepted or a book manuscript is commissioned, or an article is assigned, one of the tasks of an editor charged with coordinating the publication is to, at least informally, determine where on the matrix of subject-matter expertise, reportorial aptitude, and writing ability an author’s level of competence lies. (Think of a scorecard with a three-by-three grid, like a tic-tac-toe box, as an evaluative tool.) The degree of competence may differ in each of the categories, but the author’s comprehensive skill level will generally rest in one of the three degrees (expert, learner, or amateur).

Diagnosing the author’s competence in the three components of comprehensive authorial talent will help an editor predict how much developmental and line editing and fact-checking a given manuscript will require — and how viable the project is, or whether it is viable at all.

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6 Responses to “A Writing-Competence Matrix”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Whew, thank goodness I write fiction. No one ever challenged my authority in my mind… Except for my characters, setting, themes and even a few plots… I might be crazy, maybe…

    This is a great article, I never knew what really was involved with the non-fiction writing process. Here I am, winging article writing. My goodness, that is a lot of poking and prodding!

    Thanks for sharing this, glad you did.

  • thebluebird11

    Wow…my mind is boggled by this. I never realized what might go into a simple magazine article or news report. Nakes me feel incompetent…therefore relieved that it’s not what I do for a living!
    Thanks for the insight 🙂

  • Roberta B.

    Only a seasoned editor could provide this perspective on non-fiction writing. In the realm of writing to define policy, it’s surprising how many facts are omitted or included to justify an agenda. While the desired effect is objectivity, subjectivity (often disguised as neutrality) usually wins out.

    Only a democracy can provide sufficent fact-checking to verify or nullify the basis of information or opinion for what will or won’t become the law. Experts with an agenda can be useful or oppressive. Thanks for putting your experience to words.

  • Dora

    I have talked to so many people, but none of them has ever been so clear on writing and knowing what you are writing about.

  • Michael

    Splitting infinitives is not a crime, but you are splitting them often and sometimes awkwardly.

  • Marianne Peters

    Great post! It really challenged me to look at areas of weaknesses in my writing, but also to reflect on some strengths. I’ve been at this freelance thing for a while and it never gets easier … quite the reverse …!

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