Blog | Oct 1, 2010 | 2 Comments

[the skeptical writer]

[how being critical can add value]

To market a product or service with your writing, it’s important to think like a fan. But to write a really clear and compelling description of anything, it helps to start as a skeptic.

I think it’s a good practice to poke around in the background material to look for holes, and then ask some hard questions. I do my best work when clients have clearly described their audience(s), provided a detailed description of their offering and articulated its value, identified their competition, and clearly differentiated themselves.

If I don’t believe them, I get worried.

This reaction is based not only on my experience as a marketer and a writer, but on my life as a consumer. Like a lot of people I know (you?), I’m critical of marketing and advertising by anyone: corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and especially politicians. I like facts and I don’t like fluff. (Yes, I love my DVR for the ability to skip through ads.)

When I discover holes in the source material and questions continue to surface after a briefing, I ask for more information and perspective. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I’m faced with a choice: to try to write well enough without this information, or to do my own research to find the answers.

Of course, this raises an important question.

Do I have the time and the budget for the extra effort? Sometimes I have to “stick to the script” if a tight deadline is looming. But sometimes curiosity gets the better of me. Despite budgets or schedules, I’ll stray off the path into Google to see what I can learn about a topic that is bugging me, a hole I don’t feel I can successfully fill in with nice prose.

I always find something that improves the piece, or at least persuades my client that they need to provide more information to make the piece better–that is, more believable.

This is added value, even if it’s not the best business practice for a writer.

Of course, some writers I know won’t even start a project without a complete creative platform. Or, they bill by the hour until the project is tightly defined. That’s a clear financial incentive for their clients to get everything nailed down. And it protects the writer’s time, of course.

What do you think? How do you fill the “holes” in your source material? Does skepticism improve your work?

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds on flickr. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


I am a skeptic at heart, almost to the point where it becomes a writing disability. I jump from one perspective to the next, and by the end of my post I sometimes feel like I haven’t gotten ANYWHERE productive. Instead of providing answers, I end up with more questions.

Skepticism, however, has been incredibly beneficial to me from an intellectual, knowledge-seeking standpoint. I have a good ability at holding two opposing ideas in my head and considering them both as equally true.

That last sentence was actually a paraphrase from one of my favorite quotes:

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald,

So, yes, skepticism definitely has a TIME and a PLACE. But we also need to sometimes hide our skepticism and go with our convictions full throttle!

Great post.


Claire Wagner Reply:

Steve, great comment – plus a wonderful quote. The original title of this post was something like “skeptic or cheerleader?” and I intended to talk about needing to play both roles as a writer. Somehow that perspective didn’t emerge and I focused instead on the skepticism. So it’s just an interesting coincidence that you would bring up a similar point, and I agree with you completely – we have to act as champions for ourselves (as bloggers) or our clients (in our paid work) in order to write with conviction. Thanks as always for reading and providing such great commentary.


Steven H


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