Expertise; Is it Necessary?

Since it was asked in our forums I have been pondering on this question and thinking about the blogs I have read since the thought was raised; is it necessary to be an expert in your subject in order to have a successful blog? I have to say I am more sure now of my initial assessment than I was when I made it. Blogging is not necessarily about expertise, in fact you might be at a disadvantage if you think that is the case.

Let me explain my thinking with some examples

What, other than their entertainment value and popularity, do these blogs have in common? Both of those blogs have authors that are experts but the blogs are not popular because of the bloggers expertise!

Scott Adams is an expert in creating and drawing a massively popular syndicated comic but in his blog he writes funny stories about daily life or trouble in the middle east. It is actually quite rare for him to write about his work in any sort of detail.

For every serious post about freedom, copyright and campaigns on BoingBoing there is around ten that are just plain fun. Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author (a good one actually), but you never see a “how to write science fiction” tutorial on there.

OK, I know you are thinking of a bunch of blogs where the author does share his or her expertise. You might include Performancing in this category, I don’t know. Fact is for any given “expert blog” there are many non-expert blogs. I love bloggers that share their expertise, it is a good thing. Just, you know, not entirely necessary.

What I think sets apart a good blog from a bad one in most cases is not the knowledge or experience of the blogger but how interesting they make the content. If Scott Adams wrote the very same ideas in a serious political blog I would never subscribe to it, as well as his off the wall way of looking at life it is his writing style that grabs me. If you are not an expert but can be interesting or write particularly well I believe you can more than make up for a lack of expertise. Have all that and expertise you will probably do even better but don’t hold back because you don’t consider yourself an expert.

So what if your subject requires a tutorial or knowledge approach? Take a quick look at Darrens Digital Photography School blog and tell me what you see. A bunch of tutorials and tips right? His blog has quickly become probably the most popular photography tips blog on the web right now, mentioned everywhere including newspapers etc. Well he is a decent photographer but I don’t think Darren has turned into Ansel Adams any time recently! He is sharing a well-researched passion, not necessarily expertise. Much of what is in his blog is already available, what sets his blog apart is the accessible way he presents the information in daily, clear, uncluttered, simple, bite sized chunks.

For a while I attracted quite a lot of attention from tutorials, articles and books on certain programming technologies. People considered me an expert on the subject but I thought of myself as anything but. Whatever I wrote about was usually something I had only just figured out for myself. With my own photography blog part of the aim was to learn by teaching, it has certainly helped.

It is like the old joke about the two hunters being chased by a bear, one stops to put on his running shoes, “you really think those will help you out run a bear??” “No, but I might just outrun you …”. You just need to be interesting and one step ahead of your audience. There are so many resources you can turn to for the information you might not actually need to know much about your subject at all (although you might feel a fraud it is only what authors have done for years). It’s better to have both but if you do have to choose between “expert” and “interesting”, choose “interesting” every time!

17 thoughts on “Expertise; Is it Necessary?

  1. There are quite a few blogs that aren’t link blogs or how-to, functional, or news blogs. Some blogs are about a journey the blogger is currently on – and that many other people may also be taking. Not a physical journey, but a personal journey. I think that being an “expert” might be detrimental in those cases. The non-expert blogger is providing a service of sorts by letting their readers know that they’re not journeying alone.

    I know I’d much rather read a blog written by someone facing the same types of challenges along the way as I am.

    Just my 2 cents worth

  2. How many posts out of a week are on copyright? Take a look at boingboing today and tell me if you think it is a copyright blog. You have never needed to be an expert to have a link blog, unless you regard finding obscure but interesting/fun links expertise in which case I would concede that point. Is it too late? It’s never too late, might be difficult but any more difficult than, say, starting a web2.0 blog? or a digital camera blog? Or a blog on pro blogging?

  3. Cory’s full-time job, until recently was working for the EFF, which specializes in digital copyright. This is something that he posts about very often on BoingBoing, and without his expertise with EFF, one could argue that his posts on internet copyright legislation wouldn’t be as well informed. He didn’t become a “full-time” science fiction writer until very recently.

    Also, Boingboing is a link blog, and many bloggers claim it’s too late to jump on the link-blog bandwagon and become popular these days, so I would argue that bloggers just starting out would have to have more expertise in their topic, than say, a blogger who started out five years ago.

  4. Hi chris good work with the content.I would like to know more topic information extraction from genius.
    can you write specifically on that? hmm just kidding

  5. As I think Nick implied above, you learn by teaching. A blog is a great place for that. [And possibly part of the reason I started so many blogs – I come from a long line of educators and healers.]

    I recently got dissed as a beginner, by a commenter on a blogsite that I write for a client. I responded by pointing out that I never claimed to be an expert on the full topic, and in fact explicitly stated otherwise several times in the blog.

    However, on the aspect of the topic that I usually write about, I’m fairly knowledgeable (30+ years). The rest of my writing was exploration and documenting what I was learning.

    There’s always someone who knows less, who will benefit from what you write. So while you’re learning other aspects of a topic, write about what you already know.

  6. @Brian: Thanks for the tip. Ze Frank is funny. I like his site. Never heard of it before 🙂

    BTW: Perfect multi-link homepage.

  7. @TC: Great comment as an inspiration. Add truth, self-reflection and everything Darren (Problogger) said above. The process of getting better in a certain field, presented with dignity and not attitude, is a very valuable field of blogging because many readers will exactly know what you are talking about.


    1. I think that this product will enhance my fly fishing, because …
    2. I thought this product would be great to enhance my fly fishing. In fact my first experience is as folows …
    3. I told you a while ago. Today I can tell you from my experience …

    Through the steps consideration, first experience and review you are able to take your readers with you on that experience journey.

    I described some of those steps in February here in my blog when I was testing/considering different software for a new blog. Writing about the process helped me and the gained information is not lost for others.

  8. Are rarely the people who know the most about something. They’re simply those who are the best at self promotion.

    In the fly fishing space, I know of a relative newcomer who speaks with authority on many issues, owns a complex, multi-media web site, posts endlessly and is published by one of the major print magazines. Yet it’s clear – from his own site – that he rarely actually fishes.

    The point isn’t that experts are assholes. The point is that if you’re waiting to become one before posting, you’re probably waiting in vain – you might already know more than those atop the food chain.

    Look at it this way. Much is made about supplying “good information” to readers to get them to come back, but consider this: all buying decisions are emotional – even those couched in facts and pros/cons lists. If you can make your subject emotionally attractive to a reader (through any number of mechanisms), then they’ll “buy” your content and come back for more.

    Be topical. Add suspense. Tell a story. And let ‘er rip.


  9. On the newbie thing: A blog is a pretty good way to learn a subject — if you want to learn how to do something, blog about it, and make some cash in the process eh?

  10. That is so true. Also, many people who have been “experts” for ages miss the most obvious things that a newbie with fresh eyes will key in on. It’s a great motivation to keep pushing to learn new things constantly, and not be afraid to throw your thoughts out there.

    And as Darren said, qualifying your level of expertise by being honest about what you don’t know just endears you to your audience that much more.

    Great post, Chris.

  11. I think you’re right Chris. Expertise is not everything. A few extra points:

    – you do need to know something about your topic
    – I find readers appreciate knowing not only what you do know but having you admit what you don’t know
    – don’t pretend to know something you don’t

    Just a few thoughts that come to mind as I head to bed tonight

  12. New ideas; are they really necessary?

    Chris, it appears you were just hit with a flash of the blindingly obvious.

    In related news — was Shakespeare *really* an expert in Danish monarchy? Did Stephen King really know everything about demon clowns and rabid dogs?

    When writing about something, it helps if you can write. Well, duh!

  13. When you’re learning something sometimes you have an advantage over old hands, you understand what other newcomers are looking for and want to know. When doing you’re research write down important questions you have and make articles or posts that answer them as easily as possible. Roll all those articles up in a “subject 101” category and things are golden.

  14. Darrens photography school is a great example! The expertise shining through is the know-how of how to set up a successful platform for a given subject. For the reader it is a plain tutorial, written in plain English with plain examples and this way he is building a great community.

    As you once said “I almost spit my cornflakes over the breakfast table” when reading his article about how-to hold a camera. This really was a scoop very seriously blaming all the expert blogs.

    Lesson learned!

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