Who are your experts?

People like to get advice when they’re working on something they’re not too sure about that could easily blow up in their face.  When my lovely wife is trying out a new-to-us, Classic Family Recipe, she calls her mom (which I’m pretty sure her mom loves).

Now, if she times it right (or, to be honest, wrong), she’s going to get a lot more advice than just her mom’s.  I remember one call in which she asked about cooking a proper New York strip steak and ended up with her uncle on the line, giving her a ten minute coaching session on how to cut the thing once it was cooked. One of her sisters will remind her not to leave the gas stove burning all night (a: we have an electric, b: we’re not actually stumbling morons), another sister will suggest she just go out to eat.  It’s charming, and familial, but it’s not necessarily all useful, you know?

But how to do we know what the crap advice is?  Kate’s mom happens to be a good cook – we know this because we’ve eaten her food – but if she were just “ktsmom113@yahoo.com”, posting her suggestions in a forum, how much credence should we give her?

Not… you know… a lot.  Unless the advice itself is good.

“But… Doyce?” I pretend you are asking, “How do we know if the advice is good? If we knew enough about the subject to tell the good from the bad, we wouldn’t need the advice.”

That’s a fair point, pretend-you-in-my-head; well said.   It’s a tricky situation, and it’s not as though you can just look at what the person has done or not done in their life to determine if they’re a qualified expert.  

Kate’s mom has a degree in chemistry, not culinary arts.  I have a friend, De (hi, De!), who gives me wonderful (and harsh, and uncompromising, and brutally honest) writing advice (which I take! I really do!  It just takes me a few days to agree…); but she hasn’t published a book any more than I have (to which I’ll add “yet” to placate both our egos) – where does she get off giving me advice on writing, and what turnip truck did I fall off that I’d listen to her? (The answer is: because she knows writing, and her advice makes my story better. Duh.)  I have another friend who happens to be a very successful author, but I’d never take her advice on finding an agent (for example), because it would probably amount to “while in college, meet someone who will eventually become an agent, stay friends with them while you both learn your respective trades, then have them represent you”, because that’s what she did.

Good karate advice. Crappy fence painting advice.
Good karate teacher. Crappy investment analyst.

It’s confusing, so how do you check?

  • Are they at least involved in the field in some way?
    If it’s writing advice, are they a writer? Or an agent? Or an editor?  Are they, perhaps, married to one of those types of people (you rarely find an expert’s spouse trying to give advice on their spouse’s field of expertise, but that doesn’t mean they can’t – it just means they have some sense).
  • Do they study the subject?
    I don’t self-publish (epublish or make any of my work available via POD services/Amazon).  I have nothing against it, but right now I’m working through Hidden Things with a tradition writer -> agent -> publisher approach, and that’s where my energy is going.  However, while I’m not actually in the trenches of self-publishing at the moment, I am studying the HELL out of it, and I can quote you cost breakdowns and comparisons and marketing tips and distribution methods until you run screaming from the room.  There are people out there who could give you better advice, by virtue of being in those trenches, but my advice would not, probably, be bad.
  • Do they listen to/make use of the experts?
    There’s a web site out there that specializes in telling writers how to find an agent (okay, there are hundreds, but I’m thinking of one in particular). The punchline is that the person running the site is an author who has not, herself, gotten an agent.  WHY would anyone listen to someone like that?  Well, because get gets agents to guest star on her site every couple weeks or so, to give honest, from-the-gut response to the first 250 words of people’s stories.   Funny tip: you don’t actually have to be good at the thing you give perfectly sound advice on.  I mean, that teacher from Fame made Coco the best dancer he could be even though she couldn’t dance anymore. *tears up*

“Double-triple-quadruple check” is what it boils down to, I suppose.   Ninety percent of everything is crap, including advice, so it stands to reason you need to check ten sources to even have a decent chance to getting to the good stuff.  A hundred sources would be much better.

And don’t freak out too much if the advice is coming from a weird source.

Actually, that’s a fun question: what weird source do you get good advice from? (Like Casa Testerman’s cooking tips from a chemist.)

Even better: how do you identify your experts?

10 Replies to “Who are your experts?”

  1. I have been thinking a lot about this lately and wondering if *I* am actually enough of an expert to give anyone else writing advice.

    I have one finished manuscript under my belt and agents aren’t very taken with my story so far. So, who am I to spout advice on query letters and agents?

    I have spent a lot of time reading blogs, writing agents, and making friends in the publishing industry, but honestly… I don’t feel qualified to give advice to my dog about publishing. (My cat on the other hand is a completely different story. I tell him what to do all the time. Ghastly little minx.)

    On paper I have the credentials: lit degree, school teacher, etc. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert. In fact, I wouldn’t call anyone I take advice from an actual expert. Because the experts are too busy representing books and writing their third novels in their already published, successful series, etc. So, instead I have to depend on my peers, the well read amateurs.


  2. Thanks :)

    I would add:

    The “love” or “passion” factor. I would rather take writing advice from someone who reads like I do than a professional writing teacher who can’t tell me a SF/F writer since Asimov. Or cooking advice from cooking advice from someone who can’t boil water but loves to eat.

    Also – general “credibility” factor. If a writer, does this person read books? All the time? (I’ve met ones who don’t. Really.) Does this person like everything they read? Or nothing? Are they unable to articulate why they do or do not like something? Are the only things they “love” stuff they ran into when they were teens, and have never come back to since?

    Finally – and this may be personal preference rather than something most people do – The “OOOooOOOOooo” or “explorer” factor. Is everything always old, blah news to this person? Do they already know what they think about everything? Do they every talk about something they don’t understand, but would like to? Do they work with the people around them to form opinions? Do they go, “OOO, shiny. Must try that!” and jump off that cliff? Do they report on “failures” as well as “successes”?

  3. Wow. Don’t post on Sudafed, I guess.

    I meant, “I’ll take cooking advice from someone who can’t boil water but who loves food.”


  4. Also, I liked the Creative Penn link the other day and plan to keep up with them, so maybe add:

    References. Does somebody you respect give it the thumbs up? (Not to be taken as a solo reason.)

  5. Oh yeah. My weird source is engineers. I can almost always find someone who has thrown themselves off x cliff in that crowd.

  6. See, I knew I was forgetting some things, and that there was a reason I wanted to just open it up to more thoughts. Thanks!

  7. I consider myself an ‘agglomerated’ expert in a lot of things – and a ‘deep’ expert in very, very few.

    As a result, I’m often more interested in *how* the expertise is presented, rather than it’s depth or quality.

    If someone can help me go to a deeper level of understanding, passion, or help connect it to something else I understand, then that’s the person I tend to go to on those topics, even if they aren’t as ‘deep’ an expert on them as someone else.

    Perhaps a good term would be ‘velcro experts’ – people who can make what they know stick to my brain, as opposed to people who turn it off…


  8. I think a lot of it depends on the kind of answer I’m receptive to – sometimes I’m really asking for technical advice, and sometimes I *am* asking for all of the anecdotes that come with it… the story of the answer that gets repeated and written into family lore.

    I wonder how much of it is related to respect? There are people who are so-called experts in their field whose answers I’d tend to doubt because I don’t respect their work.

    Or, conversely:

    There are people at work whose respect of me I shouldn’t shrug off just because they don’t understand what I do, right?

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