How to Avoid the Fake Experts Who Manipulate Freelancers

By Sharon Hurley Hall November 16th, 2018

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been tempted to pay for a no-fail, sure-thing writing course, mentorship, or self-help guide from a self-professed expert. You’re not alone. Fake freelance gurus are everywhere in the freelance industry, and they’re dangerous.

“Your inbox is probably full of fake experts and their garbage,” wrote certified financial planner Carl Richards in The New York Times. “They are people like the speaker I heard at a conference who claimed that all you had to do to be an expert was raise your hand. That’s not expertise. It’s snake oil.”

Fake experts are a particular pet peeve for business writer and author Jenn Mattern, who’s been mentoring writers for more than a decade through her website, All Freelance Writing. “New writers often come to me for advice. And almost every time I ask them what they’ve been doing that’s left them frustrated and on the verge of throwing in the towel, one of a handful of names come up,” she said. “It’s the same courses, the same membership sites, the same guides, the same ‘mentors.’ They’re full of promises they can’t back up, because they’re so worried about selling things to newer writers that they aren’t building writing careers of their own.”

Fake experts vs. insta-experts

There are two kinds pseudo-experts to watch out for. There are those who try to con people out of money with expertise they don’t have, and then there are the insta-experts, who are worse.

“An insta-expert is someone who decides to teach others (and usually charge them) when they don’t have the necessary experience or expertise to teach them competently,” Mattern said. “These are people who care more about building the image of being an ‘expert’ than building genuine expertise.”

Part of the problem is that insta-experts will often pick the brains of more experienced professionals and repackage what they hear. But if they don’t understand the advice themselves, they can’t pass it on correctly to others.

For new freelancers who don’t know better and pay for information from insta-experts and fakes, there’s a danger of disillusionment when they fail to achieve the results promised to them.

How can new freelance writers identify and avoid these pseudo-gurus? Here are some tips.

Check your expert’s experience

If someone sells you advice, you better be sure they have the experience to back that up. Don’t just read the blurb on their site. Check them out on Google, LinkedIn, and elsewhere for:

  • Information on what they do and how long they’ve been in business
  • Examples of work related to their expertise
  • Recommendations and testimonials from third parties

Mattern’s advice: “If you see an e-book for sale and the sales page says ‘When I began freelancing a year ago…’ spending your money elsewhere is a safe bet. Anything you can learn from a single year freelancing you can find available for free. You’re basically paying for a self-promotional case study.”

If the so-called expert hasn’t listed the length of their time in the field, just ask. It’s your money, after all.

Avoid mutual admiration societies

Small groups of creatives often run into the problem of over-regard. Sharing content is fine. The problem arises when group members start labeling each other “experts” long before they deserve the title. This results in what Mattern called “blind mutual admiration societies.”

The good news is these networks eventually come to a natural end. “When you’ve built an undue reputation, you eventually interact with more experienced pros,” Mattern said. “The freelance writing community is a welcoming one, but people will start to see through the façade. In that sense, tight colleague communities are a bit of a double-edged sword. They can create the beast but also bring it back down to earth.”

Trust your gut

Sometimes you can feel when something’s off. When someone with one year of experience tries to sell a course on successful freelancing, it’s pretty clear. Occasionally, however, you just need to trust your intuition.

“If the advice feels ‘off,’ talk to someone else about it,” Mattern said. “Find someone with a career track more in line with what you want. And if you feel like someone’s only interest in helping you … is in milking you for every cent you’re worth, trust your gut and look for other sources.”

Learn the fundamentals on your own

The best way to make sure you don’t fall for a fake expert is to focus on teaching yourself the tenets of the freelance trade. Doing so will sharpen your BS detector so you can spot the genuine experts ready to help with legitimate advice.

“Pick up a used textbook,” said Mattern. “You can even find good free digital ones online. If you’re in the U.S., get some background from the Small Business Administration or your local SCORE group. If a school offers night adult courses and you can afford to take one, look into that. Real fundamentals from real experts—that’s where you should start.”

Build your own network of experts

While you need to avoid bad advice as a new freelancer, you also need a network that can provide guidance. No freelancer should be an island.

Find out where people like Mattern and other veteran freelancers hang out—places like Anne Wayman’s writer forum. These groups typically comprise a mix of new and experienced freelancers, so they’re a great place to get a range of perspectives and build your own trusted network.

According to Mattern, this network should include “people who have been where you want to go. You’ll get some good advice. You’ll get some bad advice. You’ll be wrong sometimes. You’ll make mistakes. And you’ll learn from them. And that’s where real expertise comes from.”

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