You’ve probably read those acknowledgements at the back of a book: “Special thanks to Nobel Prize winner Niels Ryberg Finsen for the many hours of medical advice and strong coffee he shared with me, without which this book would not be possible.” And you’ve wondered what it takes to get a world-famous expert of your own, one who could answer the nagging technical questions that come up in your writing project.
Now, unless you’re working on a book for a major publisher, you probably won’t get a Nobel laureate on your team, but knowledgeable experts can be found almost everywhere, at your local college or across the world through email.
The good news is that experts are usually glad to help for free. They love finding someone who cares about their subject and they hate having their specialty misrepresented. The wife of one history professor joked that even if the university wasn’t paying him, he would go door to door asking, “Hi! Have you heard about World War I?”
Approaching an expert
- First, figure out what you don’t know. As you write, add tags to your text such as “[research] ” so you can search for them later using Control-F or Command-F on your computer.
- Make a list, in advance, of the most important questions you want answered.
- When you email an expert, show them that you didn’t pick them at random. Show them you know who they are and what they do, that you’ve read something they’ve written.
- Tell them a little about your writing project. The more reputable and stable it sounds, the more likely the expert will agree to help you. If you already have a book deal, that’s good. If you’re asking them to do your homework for school, that’s not good.
- Limit your email to one or two brief, narrow, and focused questions.
- Include your contact information, especially if you’re asking for a telephone or face-to-face interview.
- Give them lots of lead time; don’t rush them. Ask for their help weeks or months before you need to submit your manuscript.
- If they don’t reply to your email, stop there. Don’t bug them again. You can find another expert.
- When you talk to an expert, be prepared; don’t waste their time with fuzzy questions. I’m reminded of a mock interviewer who asked Paul McCartney, “Remember when you were with the Beatles?” Yes, he did.
- Keep it open-ended: “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” An off-hand comment might give you a new story idea that transforms your old one.
- Ask about what you can ask for. If they answer one question, are they willing to answer more? To meet with you for lunch? To read over your manuscript and make suggestions? It all depends on their availability and interest – which depends partly on your professionalism and courtesy.
- Seek viewpoints that disagree with you. For most writers, the most vivid parts are the points they support and the characters they like. That means your villains may be one-sided. Compensate for your weaknesses by learning about things you would ordinarily ignore. When I was writing a novel that included extremists, I read one of the key books written by their founder.
Finding an expert
- Use your network. Ask people you know, “Who do you know that knows about this subject?”
- Reference librarians (often found at libraries) can help you find the answer to any question – a sort of non-electronic Google, but without spam or fake news. If your local library doesn’t have reference librarians, the U.S. Library of Congress does – and you don’t need to be a U.S. Congressman to ask them questions.
- Many colleges and universities have faculty “experts lists” that are searchable by topic. Many are especially skilled or specially trained as communicators, but all are eager to share their expertise.
- StackExchange.com is a family of websites where users can ask all sorts of questions and the most helpful questions and answers are voted up.
- The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) website has its own Reference Desk in their forums, about which they say, “What actually does relate to the price of cheese in China? How many cats can you fit in a coffin? Why does the ABC song and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star have the same tune? You have a research question. Someone in here has an answer.” Sign up (you were planning on writing a novel someday, weren’t you?), log into the website and you can ask away. NaNoWriMo officially starts in November but the forum is open year-round.
Showing your gratitude
- When you’ve finished your draft, send your expert the chapter or the article they helped you write. They may have more comments and corrections to offer. You can use all the help they can give.
- When deciding how to thank your expert collaborator, think about how much time and effort they spent, and how vital their contribution was to you. If you literally couldn’t have done it without them, and you’re making money from their contributions, you may want to offer them some of the money as payment or a tip.
- Like all of us, your expert has something they want to accomplish by working with you, so think about how you can assist them in accomplishing it.
- Do they enjoy helping others (you)? Let them know, in several ways, how much you appreciate it.
- Do they want to correct a misunderstanding, and give your readers an accurate view of their field? Make every effort to get their message across, without compromising your story. You might disagree with their perspective, but at least present it fairly.
- Do they want the prestige of working with a published author? Use their name prominently in your acknowledgements and publicity. They may want copies to give out. If they have worked with you extensively, they might deserve a co-authoring credit.
- Write a thank you note. You know, with pen and ink. Maybe on a note card.
- Send them an autographed copy of your story or article when it’s published.
- Bring or send an appropriate gift.
- If you ask to meet with them, buy them lunch.
- If you’re a fiction writer, name a character or place after them. They will be tickled.
- Of course, mention them in the acknowledgments of your book. Everybody likes to be recognized. Unless they’re a spy and want to remain undercover.
Writing can be a solitary occupation, and you may never have considered that someone important could be interested in working with you. But Joe Moore, a bestselling author of thrillers with Lynn Sholes, says, “The most remarkable thing we’ve discovered is that expert advice is easy to get. Almost everyone we’ve approached has been eager to provide fictionalized theories and futuristic details that help make our often outlandish premises ring within the realm of possibility.”