Friday, August 5, 2011

The Value of Expertise

I might get myself in trouble with this one.

As a teacher (and especially when I worked in "regular" ed), I've heard the following line more than once from parents: "I know what's best for my child."

Really? If so, why do we have pediatricians? Dentists? Why send children to school at all, where they'll be taught by someone who is not the parent of said-child?

We trust that doctors know more than we do about physical health. Most of us take our cars to mechanics because they know more about engines and carburetors and serpentine belts than we do. They have something we don't—EXPERTISE on the subject.

Same goes for teaching. I studied enough about mathematics and the teaching thereof to earn two degrees. I've taught just about every level of math that exists in secondary education. Perhaps I know a thing or two.

That's not to say parents (or anyone) should blindly trust the experts. But to make an informed argument, they need to gain some expertise of their own.

Ask questions. Do some research. Try a few different things—that would definitely make you an expert on what has and hasn't worked in the past. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind the advice being given to you before you dismiss it.

Wait a minute. This sounds familiar.

It applies to writing, too.

Writers often say we know what's best for our stories. In some ways, yes ... but in some, maybe not. Does the writer have the expertise to make that judgment?

An editor or agent generally does have that expertise. They've studied, trained, and had experience in the world of writing. They might just know more than we do about what does or doesn't work. (Yes, it's a very subjective industry, but some things are clear-cut enough.)

Agents are too overwhelmed to give much feedback, and most of us don't have access to an editor, nor the means to pay a freelancer. So we're left to gain at least some expertise ourselves.

How can we do that? I have friends who've been through MFA programs, and it shows in both the polish and cohesive structure of their work. But that may not be the route for all of us. There are How-To books of various types. Expertise galore, ready for us to access it.

Reading can be a great way, too, but we can't just read. We have to read on a "meta" level. When we enjoy something, we need to think about why—what did the author do right, and how? If something annoys or bores us, we need to figure out what's behind that, too.

Will all of that ever equal the knowledge and experience an industry pro can bring to the table? Probably not. But that's where strength in numbers comes in. Solid critique partners who've also done their part to gain expertise can have a huge effect on our outcome. (More on that coming on a special post August 15th.)

The bottom line is that we shouldn't plug our ears and chant that we know what's best for the story simply because we wrote it.

Well, really, we can do anything we want in our novels ... if we don't care about getting published.


Sophie Perinot said...

You are right on both counts (the education realm and the world of writing).

Instinct is important yes, as is caring (and nobody cares more than we do about the well-being and development of our progeny -- whether that progeny is a child or a manuscript), but training has value. Expertise has value.

We need to listen to the people whose job it is to polish young people and/or prose (kind of sounds like my "letting our book babies go" piece at From the Write Angle -- I know). And when we don't have access to "experts" (and even when we do) we SHOULD work to make ourselves more knowledgeable!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Absolutely. When I first started querying I thought all I needed was talent - which is why it took me so damn long to get an agent.

Research sounds boring. Taking advice implies that don't know what you're doing... or at least some would think. Doing your research re craft / market / agents / whatever is priceless, and taking advice shows maturity.