Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Voir Dire the Author

Long, long ago, in a world not so different from our own, a blond high school student learned the inner workings of the court room through the great program of High School Mock Trial.

Said blond high school student and her team made it to the state championship. Though they lost, the blond received the award for best witness.

And while all of that brings back fun memories, one other lesson really took root: Voir Dire.

The Courtroom Voir Dire
According to my sister-in-law (an Assistant District Attorney, and yes her badge is very very nifty), voir dire means picking "apart a proposed expert by asking them questions to prove they are experts."

So this process is how a courtroom determines a potential witness' expertise...or destroys his/her credibility.

My brother, also an attorney, broke it down more for me (have you ever tried decoding legalese?), rather than me finding a canned answer on

The goal of a witness in any trial is to tell what he/she knows.

An expert witness, however, must base his/her testimony on
1) sufficient facts/data that is
2) based on reliable principles/methods and
3) applies the principles/methods to the facts of the case.

Also, an expert witness must have sufficient knowledge, experience, skill, training or education.

Code for: *something that makes them credible*

The Everyday Voir Dire
Although you don't realize it, we conduct this same process every day in our professional AND personal lives.

When a police officer pulls you over, he/she doesn't take your word for who you are; you have to present your credentials (aka, drivers license and insurance).

If a police officer comes to your door, you don't let him/her in until you've seen the badge.

When you make a doctor appt/visit, you don't accept that he's a doctor just because he wears a white jacket. You look for the licensing information and education info hung on the walls. You ask around for recommendations before making the appt.

Our whole world revolves around Voir Dire. We are just too cynical to take people at face value anymore.

The Author Voir Dire
Guess what? Authors undergo the same process when readers are faced with the decision of reading/buying a book.

Readers pick up a book usually because it's been recommended to them.

BUT if they don't know about the author--or don't know about the book itself, which is the position most unknown authors' titles are in--they want to make sure their money is well-spent and that the time they invest in reading will be productive.

Author Voir Dire: Question #1
The big question an author must answer before expecting a reader to pick up his/her book is this: 

Why should you [reader] read my book?

It's always revealing when you ask an author this outright. Most of the time, the author stutters and stammers a response.

Sometimes they get huffy that you've even asked.

But this is the easy part! An author evidently wrote a book for a reason. Well, there's a natural compliment to that motivation, which is the reason that people should read the book.

All authors must be prepared for that question, as it's the first step in the Voir Dire process. 

Author Voir Dire: Question #2 
Why does your [author] opinion/voice matter?

This question is one both non-fiction and fiction writers must answer.

What benefits do your philosophy/story/presentation offer that similar products don't offer? What credentials do you offer as an author? What affirms your role as an expert, as someone to be listened to? 

Exhibit A
If you ever have the opportunity to chat with an expert in your field, do so. For me, that means chatting with successful professionals on the industry side, as well as with successful authors.

I once had the pleasure of attending a dinner with Pat Conroy. For those who don't know, he's the author of "The Great Santini", which was turned into a fabulous film, as well as many other titles.

"The Great Santini" is the story of a teenage male growing up as the son of an abusive military officer. It details his experiences as he transitions into manhood.

The majority of the dinner was spent chatting about his works. His speech that followed established his credibility on the subject matter.

He doesn't have a degree in psychology, but that doesn't mean he is not an expert on military life, education, and the effects of an abusive homelife.

He established details of his own childhood as the son of a military officer, and he vividly explained the treatment he had endured. He told stories of how his family responded to his portrayals of his family in various books (most notably THE GREAT SANTINI and MY LOSING SEASON), and even relayed his siblings' responses that indicate his portrayal of his father was more gracious than the man was in real life.

Why do people listen to Pat Conroy? After all, many of his fellow Citadel graduates disapprove of his writings concerning the school and military life.

But he has established that his view of these topics was won with blood, sweat, and tears. While it might not be endorsed by experts in those respective industries, the book resounds with the thousands who have similar experiences. [visit Pat's site at]  

Exhibit B
Let's look at another example: the Oprah/James Frey controversy. (if you aren't sure to what I'm referring, click here. No one has ever questioned the skill of his writing.

Voir Dire. His "experiences" were not real, and therefore he effectively hung himself by claiming a level of expertise he could never reach. 

My Witness Testimony
As a professional in the publishing field, as well as a young professional deeply entrenched in local community, social, and political organizations, I interact with experts every day. Some of these are authors. Some aren't. Some are authors, but aren't experts.

My experience and knowledge of the industry, professional establishment, marketing protocols, and etiquette are my CV for being an expert.

As an expert, here is my testimony in this court case: I firmly believe that the reason authors become successful is due to the establishment of their expertise. In fact, to my knowledge there has never been a successful author who didn't first establish his/her credibility as an expert.

Here are some valid ways that new, unknown authors can establish their credibility. Remember: writing a book doesn't make you an expert. You write the book because you ARE the expert.

1) Adjust your mindset: many authors come to me expecting me to make them an expert. I will gladly share and promote your expertise, but you have to think you are an expert before I market you as one. I am not about to set up events and publicize for an "expert" whose actions and attitude aren't of the right caliber. As an expert, this should shine through everything you do:
                -how you dress (be professional!)
                -how you talk (take some public speaking courses, or do research online. Practice the art of conversation with family and friends, and try making a video of yourself conducting a reading or giving a lecture, then use it for personal critique. Doing this periodically is a great way to grow as a public speaker)
                -how you write (use spell check. If you have trouble with grammar, find a personal friend/family member to review your emails, letters, etc. before you hit send or stick it in the mail. If someone reads an email/letter from you that is full of errors, they will immediately discredit you as an author. Think of it as the author equivalent to the airbrushing done on cover magazine images. The final product is what matters.)
                -what you say (be sure that any claims you make are well supported with research and/or facts)
                -how you present yourself---aka, your demeanor (getting upset and being rude to a store clerk or interviewer reflects poorly on you and your book. Don't forget that many times one's impression of your book is tied to their impression of you!)

2) Freelance work: authors and yet unpublished writers (who I meet outside of the office) ask me every day what else they can be doing to market their book. If you bring me an author who is pursuing freelance work in credible outlets (that is, not just on their own blog, but in newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters, corporate publications, etc.---anything that requires review and acceptance by an editor/manager), I can close more events and book selling opportunities. Beefing up one's curriculum vitae with a "press log" as I like to call it (that is, any writings by the author that has been published in a third-party media outlet) is invaluable.

3) Website: when you want to know about someone, you google them, right? Well, if you don't have a web page, how can they find out more about you? I suggest you visit the websites of your favorite authors. See what options they have, what supplements they offer to their books (free downloads, etc.). Use this as a portal through which you can continue contact with your readers. 

My Closing Statement
Regardless of what your long-term goals are, I encourage you embrace your credibility and establish your authority as an expert. That not only will help you find success, but it gives meaning to your projects. And that is ultimately how you make an impact on a reader's heart. 

My Challenge to You: Voir Dire yourself. Identify the weak spots in your CV, your credibility, your demeanor, your presentation, etc. I'd love to hear from you on what you discover about yourself!  


  1. Great info Amanda! I have just entered the copy editing stage of publishing with Tate. My question to you, as a fiction writer, is the only sphere in expertise required by me would be in the areas of writing/dress/speaking etc.? So, in presentation of myself as a credible author I must become an expert and present my self and my writing as such? Thanks for the post!

  2. Great question, Darlene. If you are writing FICTION, then you need to become an expert in your genre of fiction.

    So look for freelance capabilities you can pursue. Some might be related to your genre; some might not be.

    Obviously, any short story or other literary magazine/journal is a great place to start.

    And don't forget to include a link to your website in your byline!


  3. Thanks for this, Amanda.

    In addition to trying to market SANCTION directly, I'm writing articles and getting them published in many places. The links back to my website have grown well into the hundreds.

    Also working to introduce people to the next books, EVIL FOR EVIL and COP by including mentions in what I'm writing.

    Working now with several speaking engagements that have come from these writings, so getting more info out about the books. Definitely cannot be sitting still.


    Jim Magwood
    Author of SANCTION

  4. That's FANTASTIC, Jim! See, those writing opportunities are driving the demand for you, which will in turn drive demand for your book!

  5. As a soon to be Tate Author I really appreciate you sharing this advice. I already have the blog, am already a member of a speaking bureau and was on a board of the largest victim's service agency in Pa. for six years. (my book is on the murder of my brother). I have been a features writer for several newspapers but have just started to try to get articles (from the book subject) published. Hopefully I am headed in the right direction...

  6. Doreen--

    Sounds like you are on the right path! Keep at it, and I'm sure your marketing rep would love to work with you on some of those leads for events. Keep a list of all your marketing ideas so you don't forget them by the time marketing kicks off.