Corporate tax breaks. Obtaining a Cloud Security Knowledge certification. Bankruptcy law. It’s enough to make your eyes roll to the back of your head, but they’re all common topics for their particular niche.
As a business, you’ll have to take a leap of faith and assign some difficult-to-understand topics to a writer who might or might not know what the heck you’re talking about. Or, as a writer, sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the best you can on assignments like those. That’s Yael Grauer’s specialty.
Grauer writes about world-changing tech startups, strategic content marketing, and cutting-edge fitness and nutrition research. She also works as an editor for publishers, agencies, and brands. You can connect with her via email or Twitter. Grauer takes the complex and makes it easy to understand for a wide audience – a difficult task, even for veteran writers.
She recently tackled the topic for CopyBlogger in, “7 Ways to Simplify Complex Content While Maintaining Sophistication and Nuance.” Nimble Media recently reached out to her to ask Grauer to explain her process. Below is an exclusive interview with Grauer.
Nimble Media: Tell us a little bit about your writing background. Have you always been a writer? Or did you start out in a different career?
Grauer: I was always interested in writing, and started my own zine when I was 12 or 13 years old. I also wrote for Blue Jean magazine when I was 17. I went to Shimer College, a Great Books school with a heavy emphasis on classic literature and philosophy, so I did a ton of writing in school. Career-wise, I was more interested in political activism at the time, and ended up doing internships for various political groups (as well as an environmental journal) each summer. I couldn’t get my dream non-profit job, so ended up spending four years working as a member services representative at a public access TV station. I then started teaching middle school Language Arts and Reading before moving to the Midwest. I actually started freelancing because I couldn’t find a job, and my business just grew and grew each year.
Nimble Media: You’re known for writing about complex or difficult topics. How did you get into that niche?
Grauer: I’ve had a few gigs where I honestly didn’t know whether or not I understood what I was covering. I had to ask a lot of questions just to make sure I was understanding everything correctly. Later, when I was covering a lot of healthcare IT startups, I realized people really didn’t know how to explain what they did in a way that others could understand. I started teaching a course on PR for startups, which is now available online, and a big chunk of it is not trying to impress people and just making sure they understand what you do.
Nimble Media: Writing about things like legal topics and budgets and techie stuff can overwhelm even veteran writers. What’s the most important piece of advice you have for writers who are assigned or take on topics they’re not familiar with?
Grauer: Honestly, I don’t know if it’s always the best idea to write about topics you’re unfamiliar with if you can avoid it. One of my first assignments was for Bee Culture, and I was wholly unfamiliar with the topic. I did a good job on it, but it killed my pay-per-hour because I had to do so much research and fact-checking. I learned a lot, and the company they work with sent me these amazing beeswax candles for the holidays, but I didn’t pitch Bee Culture again.
Nimble Media: In spite of the subject matter, you still tend to take a conversational tone with your stories. Is this by design, or is this just your own writing style?
Grauer: I chuckled when I read this, because one of my favorite editors just asked me to rewrite something that he said was too technical and our readers wouldn’t understand. I try to pay attention to who I’m writing for. If it’s a very technical audience, my tone is a bit different than if it’s for people unfamiliar with a topic. However, the nuances of any topic often need to be explained to people, unless they’re experts in their field, in which case I may not be qualified to explain the nuances to them anyway.
Nimble Media: OK, so you’re now a mini-expert on a difficult-to-understand topic. However, it’s real easy to slip into jargon and/or to write it in such a way that it’s hard for Average Joe reader to understand. Any advice on keeping it conversational and informative without dumbing it down?
Grauer: Have really good editors. I agree that it’s not at all easy to do, and it’s honestly something I slip into. Having a trained, skilled eye point it out to me is invaluable. I also compare edited versions of my writing to the original so that I’m constantly improving. The part about not dumbing it down, though … for that you just need to really respect the integrity of the information you’re sharing, and taking care to make sure that you’re not presenting it in a way that’s misleading. If that’s a priority, you’re much less likely to make that mistake. Having someone who’s an expert in the field you’re covering review your work is always good, too. I once bought a friend doughnuts to read something and tell me if any of it sounded off or didn’t make sense.
Nimble Media: Say you have a blog post about taxes for expatriates – and you know almost nothing about the subject. How much research goes into that blog post before you start writing?
Grauer: That’s such a tough question. Typically, I’d have an editor assign it and he or she may know a bit about it. I’d also likely find a source or two to interview, or something else to refer to. I’d put quite a bit of research into it. Having said that, the more you specialize, the easier it is to transfer information from one topic to another.
Nimble Media: Any tips for finding good (and reliable) resources online?
Grauer: It really depends on the topic. There are usually professional groups or industry groups that can point you in the right direction. Message boards for professional groups, such as AHCJ, are invaluable. I also use SourceSleuth to find interview sources, and they generally do a very good job of finding qualified sources and sometimes even a few to choose from. When all else fails, I look on Clarity or LinkedIn to see if I can find someone.
Nimble Media: Say the story you’re writing has resources that are (relatively) easy to find, but it’s not written in plain English, meaning, you still don’t fully understand the subject matter. Now what?
Grauer: I’d read as much as I could and form my own hypothesis, and then talk to people to see where I’m right and wrong. Usually when I’m assigned a story, there’s some kind of news angle, and people are dying to explain it from their perspective. It’s not that hard to get people talking about their area of expertise.
Nimble Media: Here’s another scenario: Say you receive an assignment on a topic you’re not familiar with, but you write it anyway, and the client loved it afterward. However, the amount of time it took you to write the story vs. the amount of money you were paid to write it doesn’t match up. Do you take on more of those assignments? Why or why not?
Grauer: It really depends on if it’s a topic I’ll be covering in the future. Can I use the information later, or repurpose it somehow? Do I find it personally and professionally interesting? It honestly also depends on the editor, and what kind of relationship we have and how they fit into my assignment mix. I have some editors at Contently who I would literally rewrite an entire story for from scratch on a Sunday at 2 a.m., but I’m more protective of my time and energy with other editors and pay closer attention to my pay per hour.
Nimble Media: Same scenario: You know how long it took you to write the last story. Should you ask for more money for future articles? Please explain.
Grauer: I would ask for more money for future articles if the amount of time it takes was based on the assignment, rather than my limited expertise. I don’t feel like an editor or client should have to pay for my on-the-job training, but if the type of information they’re asking for is so specific or obscure, I would probably ask for more. And if I don’t ask for more, I’d probably have to take a look to see whether or not it’s worth my time.