The Art of Becoming a Nickel Expert

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Recently, a nurse wrote to me to ask a very sensible question: “Though I have been a nurse for many years (one field, one organization), I only know what I know. While browsing content, you and others seem to write on such a wide variety of topics. Do you spend a lot of time researching?”

I thought I’d take a moment today to address that, because it strikes at the heart of some confusion about nursing and writing. The first point is this: Your professional nursing background can never serve as “source information” for anything you write for a client. The second point is this: You must develop the skill of becoming a “nickel expert” on any given topic that you wish to write about. 

For those unfamiliar with this colloquial term, a “nickel expert” is someone who understands the basics of a topic without the depth of knowledge that a true expert has. For example, many nurses are nickel experts in CABG, though they couldn’t actually perform the surgery themselves.

The art of becoming a nickel expert does, as my correspondent surmised, involve conducting research. No matter where your clinical background lies, you’ll always need to perform background research before writing about an assigned topic. You should never rely on your nursing knowledge to serve as source material, but rather to help you conduct your background research more quickly and efficiently. Let me explain what I mean by that.

You Can Never Serve as Your Own SME 

“Source material” (references) needs to come from third parties, either a human being (Subject Matter Expert) or trustworthy printed/digital materials (like the CDC website or medical journals). You can use your clinical experience to guide your research, but you cannot list yourself as a “source” for a deliverable you’re producing. For example, let’s say a client wants you to write about insulin pumps. As a diabetes educator, you may be an actual SME on insulin pumps, but you must always use outside sources when producing content for a client. 

Being a nurse with clinical experience in insulin pumps (to continue this example) gives you a distinct advantage over other writers who do not have this background, because you can use your clinical experience to complete your background research much more quickly and efficiently – and because you will think of aspects of insulin pumps that others would not, your article undoubtedly will be richer and more robust than another writer’s would be. You will know exactly what sources to turn to for reliable background information on the topic. Compiling a source list will be a snap!

But even if you have zero clinical experience in a topic, you can still write competently about it. That’s where the art of becoming a nickel expert comes in.

How to Become a Nickel Expert on Any Health Topic 

Recently, I really was assigned to write about insulin pumps. That technology didn’t even exist yet (to my knowledge), when I left the bedside circa 2011.

Yet I was still able to write authoritatively about it because I understood the steps to take to become a nickel expert in insulin pumps.

When I’m writing about an unfamiliar topic, I typically conduct my background research using these steps: 

  1. I start by searching for information at government websites: NIH, CDC, FDA, etc.
  2. Next, I visit relevant major non-profit associations and look up information there (e.g.: American Heart Association, Alzheimer’s Association, etc.)
  3. Then I perform a Google search using the “news” tab to find out about any recent developments related to the subject matter
  4. If I feel I need even more information to understand the topic, then I look to MedlinePlus for recent studies, or I turn to a well-regarded source like the Merck Manuals or Up-to-Date

That’s my basic research process for writing about an unfamiliar health topic (or technology – like insulin pumps). Doing all this reading turns me into a nickel expert on the subject matter at hand.

How Much Knowledge Do You Need to Be Considered a Nickel Expert? 

Your goal in conducting background research is not to become a stone-cold expert. If you’re researching insulin pumps, your goal should not be to become so knowledgeable that you could actually manufacture one yourself.

Your goal should be to gather an adequate amount of information to write to the level of detail required for the particular asset you’re authoring. 

For example, the brief, 700-word article I wrote on insulin pumps was intended to give a broad overview of the pros and cons of this technology to healthcare consumers. It was not intended to be an in-depth, 3,000-word white paper on the subject for diabetes educators.

The latter piece (the white paper) would require considerably more background research (and probably interviewing multiple SMEs) to become a bit more than a “nickel expert” in the subject matter. But my client assigned me a brief overview, so I conducted research just adequate enough to write the piece.

Your client’s instructions and requirements should always guide the level of research you conduct in your quest to become a nickel expert. And that’s the art of it: Not over-researching or under-researching, but reaching just the right level of knowledge to authoritatively author the piece.

 TL;dr: Never serve as your own SME, regardless of how much clinical experience you have in an assigned topic. Always conduct an amount of background research commensurate to the level of knowledge you need to write the assigned piece.

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