Requested by Sheri MacIntyre, for her research website
THE PEOPLE YOU MEET!
Why would you want to consult an expert?
Not all information is equal. Researching on the Internet has three specific weaknesses, all of them a result of the nature of internet information: The information available is there because someone, amateur or professional, chose to put it there.
Therefore, unlike big libraries or a good encyclopedia, the Internet doesn't always supply the answers you want, or even the subject you want. Because the people who upload information to the internet are not bound by professional levels of integrity, the information they publish could be incorrect. And even if you find a site that deals with your chosen subject, and seems to be relatively reliable, you still may not find the exact answer to your question.
Even your non-internet research may come up short on answers, when you've reached the limits of resources available to you.
When you reach this impasse, it's time to find an expert.
How to find them
See if the sites you've found that do deal with your subject mention any experts -- authors of books, professors at colleges and universities, or knowledgeable members of the public. Add these names to your list.
The site owners themselves may be experts in your subject. If they have an email address published on the website, you can ask them. And you can also ask them for the names of experts, if they feel they aren't qualified to help you. Add these people to your list, too.
Use Dejanews to search for newsgroups that discuss your particular subject. Haunt the list(s) for a while, looking for talkative people who seem to know their subject, and list names -- and their email addresses.
If the newsgroups don't appear to have chatty experts, try sending a message to the group asking for referrals to experts who might be able to help you.
If it's non-internet research that is leaving you high and dry, take note of the authors of the books that most closely cover your subject area.
If you've just got names
a) Ask the site owners.
How to approach experts
Experts in your subject area are more than likely out earning income from their expertise. Don't approach them until you've done your homework. Understand the basics of the subject. The questions you ask your expert should be those for which no easy answers are available elsewhere. They'll resent the time you're asking of them if you could get the answer from an encyclopedia.
Send an initial email that explains who you are and why you would like their assistance. Reassure them that you don't expect a lot of their time -- simply a few questions by email is all you need, as these are questions for which you can't find answers elsewhere.
Show the expert you've studied up already by explaining where else you've looked for answers.
Tell them why you think they will have the answers you need -- in other words, explain to them why they are experts, and a little bit about how you found them. Especially mention any people who referred you to the expert. This is another reassurance for the expert that you have done the basics, and it also subtly flatters them, which will put almost anyone at ease.
Make sure your email does specifically request if you may ask them a few questions, but don't ask the questions in that message. Allow the expert the opportunity to refuse. But do request that if they don't have time or aren't willing to help you for some other reason that they suggest another expert who can help, instead. This gives the expert a graceful way to say no, and it avoids leaving you sitting at a dead end.
When an expert agrees to help you, send a second email with your prepared questions. Try to keep it at eight or nine questions only. Any more than that will feel overwhelming.
At the end of the email, ask if you can contact them again if you need any of their answers clarified.
Once your answers come back, you can email the expert one last time. This is to thank the expert for their time and to clarify any points in their answers that you didn't quite understand.
Mention that the information is so useful to you (if it was) that you will be adding the expert to your acknowledgements for this book.
The bear trap
Sometimes experts will ask to read over your final manuscript before it goes to the editor. They may even imply that they will "approve" the work. This is not a common practice in either fiction or non-fiction, and shouldn't be encouraged, yet refusing may make you look churlish and ungrateful. A way out of this dilemma is to thank them again for their assistance, and add that you'll be more than happy to supply them with a copy of the published work.
However, most experts are flattered when they are approached for assistance, especially if you have taken some time and trouble to track them down. This makes the process of consultation a pleasant one that benefits everyone, and certainly adds a degree of verisimilitude and colorful detail to your work that you miss when you rely just on the printed word for your research.
Copyright Tracy Cooper-Posey© 1999
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