Guest Post: 3 Steps to Vetting Writing Experts

One of the best people you can possibly befriend in this freelance world is Paula Hendrickson. Paula is a sharp, intuitive, and skilled writer who is  as fun as she is generous. You’ve read here about the LOI? Paula introduced me to that method. In fact, her first post here was teaching us all about the letter of introduction.

Plus, Paula has helped me out a few times on the blog — once when I was out of the country on business and the other when I was laid up in a hospital for nearly two weeks.

Paula’s also someone with a finely tuned BS meter. Recently in a conversation, she related some of the things that bothered her about a good number of self-proclaimed experts — the inflated resumes, the one-sided conversations, the focus on profits rather than service, etc. Somewhere in that email conversation, I asked Paula to put her insights into blog post form.

Here is that post. Thank you, Paula. Once again, you’ve taught me something valuable.

Three Steps to Vetting Experts

by Paula Hendrickson

Back when I started writing, there were only a few ways to get expert advice on launching a writing career: magazines, how-to books, workshops, and seminars.

The authors and editors of those books were big draws at the workshops and seminars, and often served as expert sources cited in the magazine articles.

That made it fairly easy to determine which experts were worth following.

Today anyone with a blog or a website can pose as an authority on pretty much any topic. Some charlatans are obvious, but with others the sizzle can be so strong it’s hard to tell if they’re selling steak or blowing smoke.

The internet has made it easier than ever for slick marketers to make a quick buck off eager freelancers. Some marketers provide valuable information, others don’t. Before you decide to pay for a webinar, class, or e-book, take a moment to vet the people trying to lure you with their expertise.

A few years ago I encountered someone who was so desperately trying to position herself as an expert that she claimed to have written for a publication I’d contributed to for over a decade. I searched the publication’s online database for her byline, but her name never came up. Next, I Googled her name and discovered she had far less experience than I had at that time. Yet she was—and still is — charging new writers a hefty price to get small doses of her supposedly vast knowledge.

Before you believe the claims of so-called experts, do a little homework. Here are three simple steps to help you vet the credibility of an expert before clicking “send” on PayPal.

Step 1: Do a quick online search of the expert’s name and/or claims.

Let’s use Lori as an example. She won’t mind.

Search “Lori Widmer” and you’ll find a link to her professional website. It looks good. But it’s her website. Lori could say she’s the Shoe Queen of Ireland, or claim to be a New York Times best-selling author if she wanted to. Click over to her Project Successes page where she lists several clients and publications. Click one or two of the links and see what happens. Where have her articles been published? Who are her clients? Now go to a couple of the publications’ websites and look for her articles. If there’s a byline, is it hers? Check, check, and check.

Lori’s LinkedIn profile also shows up in the search. Is she connected with anyone from the companies or publications mentioned on her website? You bet she is. (If she didn’t have any such connections, it would be a clue that some claims on her website might be false, or at least greatly embellished.)

Our initial search also shows a link to an author’s bio for one of the publications Lori says she writes for.  That would not exist if she weren’t a contributor.

Now switch the search parameter to “by Lori Widmer” to see how many clips come up, and when and where they were published. Impressive, huh?

Lori passed Step One of the litmus test. Can she pass Step Two?

Step 2. Evaluate the expert’s social media accounts.

Yes, anyone can have active social media accounts. But having thousands of followers doesn’t make anyone an expert. Now you’ll glean valuable insights — and spot possible red flags—by checking the expert’s Twitter feed.

What’s the ratio of Followers to Following? The numbers don’t need to be equal, but if someone has a couple thousand followers, common sense says he or she should be following a couple thousand in return. When a non-celebrity has 10,000 followers but only follows 500 people, that disparity is a good indicator the person is more interested in boosting his platform and marketing his next book, webinar, or event than in interacting with his followers.

View the Tweets & Replies. How many tweets are self-promotional? How often does she interact with her followers? When was the last time she shared a link to something other than her own site or blog? Does she thank people for retweets? If most of her tweets are self-promotional, she’s probably not worth following.

You can take a similar approach with other social media accounts. On Pinterest, does he re-pin and like lots of things, or just his own products? On LinkedIn, is he active in any groups? If so, how do other members react to his comments, and how does he respond?

By following at least as many people as follow her, engaging respectfully with others on LinkedIn, and keeping self-promotional updates to a minimum, Lori easily passes Step Two as well.

Step 3. Dig into the expert’s blog.

At one time or another, most people who blog about writing have found their posts pop up on random blogs. Sometimes the posts have been outright stolen. Other times another blogger made a couple minor changes before plagiarizing it or using it in a “mash up.” Occasionally perhaps even re-blogged with proper attribution. Unless you’re intimately familiar with both writers’ blogs, you might never know if the content is original or has been pilfered. But blogs hold other clues about the integrity of their owners.

Look for click bait. Every blogger wants to draw more page views, but a blogger who favors misleading or sensationalistic headlines is probably more interested in getting click-throughs than providing useful information.

Read the comments. If everyone seems to agree with the author about a controversial subject, chances are dissenting comments have been deleted. The only people who delete non-spam comments are those who are overly concerned with their image. You know the type: know-it-alls who hate being called out when they’re wrong.

Sift through a few posts and pay attention to how often the expert says “I,” “me,” or “my” compared to “you” or “your.” It’s a subtle, but often accurate, indicator of whether they’re out to help their readers or just themselves.

What do you know? Lori passed Step Three as well!

I’m sure there are dozens of other ways to investigate the veracity of so-called experts’ claims. When freelance writing experts spend less time writing than marketing their expensive webinars, books, and courses — especially when one is a stepping stone to another —chances are the bulk of their income comes from their expert sales skills, not from selling their actual writing.

How do you differentiate between actual experts and false prophets?

Paula Hendrickson is a full-time freelance writer whose byline has appeared in dozens of publications including Emmy, Variety, American Bungalow, and Creative Screenwriting. She also provides copywriting and editing work for a select group of clients. Instead of trying to sell her services as a mentor, she freely offers her advice to new writers — sometimes whether they want it or not. Follow her on Twitter @P_Hendrickson.

 

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Comments

  • Emily Fowler July 21, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Perfect Paula! This is all such great info, and in fact, the people who have helped me out the most with advice and support have been people who DON'T claim to be the next big thing, or the heavyweight writing guru you must buy X,Y and Z from. People like you and Lori in fact, as well as Jenn Mattern, Anne Wayman and Cathy Miller (what's the opposite of name and shame, ha ha?)

    Reply
  • Sharon Hurley Hall July 21, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Excellent advice, Paula.

    Reply
  • Cathy Miller July 21, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Well thanks for the shout-out, Emily, 😉 Paula, this is why we love you. You see through all that stuff. Another thing I find interesting is the number of "experts" who have been freelancing a very short period of time. It's one thing to share what's worked and didn't work for you. It's something else entirely when you sell advice that sounds more like the Ten Commandments.

    I have often said freelancing is like dog years. I've been freelancing since 2008, which is a pup in my view when it comes to all I have to learn about freelancing. Yet I see several freelancers with less experience than me who heavily market to newbies. Like I said, sharing is great but don't present yourself as an expert. Then again, I don't care if you have one year of experience or 50, those who preach my way-or fail never appeal to me. 🙂

    Well done, Paula. I'd follow you. 😉

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer July 21, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    It's why we love you, Paula — you cut through the BS. 🙂

    I hate the words "must" and "never". To me, those words have hampered many a new writer. You MUST do it this way, and you NEVER should do that. It's BS — the only "must" anyone should follow is you must stop listening to self-serving nonsense. The only "never" should be never let anyone tell you how you must do things. 🙂

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer July 21, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    And frankly, even those statements can be limiting. Do your own thing. Follow advice if it feels right.

    Reply
  • Paula July 21, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Thanks, Emily, Sharon, Cathy, and Lori!

    I have the feeling most if not all of you have been frustrated by seeing some of the master marketers masquerading as freelancing experts. Worse yet, knowing there are plenty of trusting newbies (literally) buying into their advice. Some of that advice might actually be sound, but the followers aren't always getting the expertise they're paying for.

    You're right, Cathy. A lot of "freelancing experts" pop up every year who have maybe 5 years worth of experience, tops. I've actually gotten on the mailing lists of a couple such experts. I replied and explained that I'm not a beginner in need of their advice, since I have far more experience than they do. But if they find themselves in need of freelancing advice, just let me know.

    I've said it before: I'm an advertiser's worst nightmare because I see through the smoke and mirrors.

    And Lori – I'm glad you passed the test!

    Reply
  • Sharon Hurley Hall July 21, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Let's not even get started on the "experts" thing – when you look behind the curtain, many don't really have the chops to market themselves as experts. Funny how those who do, often don't! 🙂

    Reply
  • Ashley July 21, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Great post, Paula. Emily's exactly right about the many generous experts who give advice freely. Any new writer would be lucky to have advice from you. So they'd be wise to accept it when you offer!

    Reply
  • Paula July 22, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Darn. I must have forgotten to confirm I'm not a robot. I thought I'd replied the Sharon and Ashley yesterday.

    Sharon, it's funny that you said "when you look behind the curtain," since I almost used "the person behind the curtain" in the post, but when with the sizzle/steak line instead.

    And thanks Ashley. But even with my many years of experience I often turn to several wise people around these parts for advice from time to time! Everyone has something to teach others. The problem with some of the "experts" is they shouldn't be trying to teach people about freelance writing, they should be teaching them how to develop ancillary revenue streams to accompany their work as writers. (But that would cut into their own profits, so it probably ain't gonna happen.)

    Reply
  • Melanie Kissell July 24, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Fabbytastic post, Lori!

    Paula, I despise the word, "expert". It's overused and misused to the hilt. I worked in a field for three decades and I still don't consider myself an expert.

    Laughter is all I can exude when I land on an alleged expert's website — rife with spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. You've seen those, too, eh? Pfffftt!

    I have nothing pithy to add to your genius, only to say BUYER BEWARE.

    Reply
  • Anne Wayman July 24, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Good stuff here… and as one who is considered expert by some (not everyone by a long shot) I find the bragging marketers discouraging… but not over the long haul.

    BTW, Lori, Paula, Cathy, Emily, Ashley – all those who commented so far are freelance writing experts imo. Many of Lori's readers are.

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer July 24, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Melanie, thank Paula entirely! She's the one who provided us with such a timely reminder to look at what we're buying, kick the tires, and make sure things are as they seem.

    Buyer beware — exactly!

    Anne, thank you. Likewise, my dear. 🙂

    Reply
  • Jenn Mattern July 24, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Good post overall Paula, but I have to disagree (strongly) on one point — that social media follower numbers should be somehow close to equal, or that fewer follows to followers is a bad thing. This is a big pet peeve of mine as someone who spent years consulting on social media promotion.

    When I see you're following nearly as many people as are following you (or more), that's when I know to be suspicious. You can't legitimately follow thousands of people and actually pay attention to what the bulk are saying. I give much more weight to people who follow realistically and actually interact with the people they follow (and yes, we agree that interaction is important — you just have to look for it).

    On the other hand, following a lot of people is the number one way scammers and pseudo experts get their follower counts up. That's because far too many people engage in ridiculous reciprocal following — "I'll follow you in the hopes that you'll turn around and follow me." Some go so far as to unfollow anyone who doesn't quickly follow them back (which is juvenile and kind of pathetic).

    So if anything, legit experts are going to follow fewer people, not more. Not just a handful. Not just their family and friends while posting things for a larger audience. But far fewer than the fake experts who (with some exceptions) tend to follow massive numbers of people just to increase their own follower counts.

    Real experts are going to earn far more followers than any one person can legitimately connect with one-on-one. We don't always like to admit it, but that's reality.

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  • Jennifer Mattern July 24, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    And now on a note of agreement… 😉

    You made a comment about "trusting newbies." And that's key. The fake experts (who usually do little more than regurgitate what others have said, even if it sometimes makes them a total hypocrite), almost always focus on newbies. Exclusively. They're not out there trying to appeal to more experienced professionals, because they know they'd be laughed out of the virtual room.

    There's nothing wrong with trying to help new freelancers out. But when that's the only group you make any effort to reach, you make it sound like you have the key to going from newb to pro in no time at all, and you make a point of nickel and diming them over nearly every bit of dim-witted or swiped "advice" you spew, you're relying on the naivety and trusting nature of newbies to make a buck.

    Very little pisses me off more than people who do that. And the problem is that they're so good at talking themselves up that many newbies don't know they've been getting sh*t advice until a year or two have gone by, hundreds of dollars have been spent, and they've barely made any progress.

    Sadly, it happens a lot, and it's usually the same few "experts" to blame. Their unhappy customers don't want to speak up because they're afraid of backlash, so instead they come to the rest of us looking for help getting things moving again (and most do a great job once they're out from under said "experts'" thumbs and getting advice that's actually tailored to them).

    The only good thing about that is that many of us more experienced freelancers hear about it from those newbies, and we talk. Some of these pseudo-experts have no idea what kind of reputation they've been quietly building among colleagues — including people who used to respect them. Eventually that'll come back and bite them on the ass.

    On a more positive note, I've noticed in recent months that more newer writers (who have finally sought help elsewhere) are finally speaking up in various networking groups I'm in. There's little point in most of us naming names because if you're seen as competing with the pseudo-experts at all, their little minions just jump on you, saying you're trying to ride their coattails (funny given that it often starts the other way around).

    Change needs to come from the newer folks who bought into the garbage and have so far been scared to speak up. But finally they're sharing stories about the crap advice they've gotten in these smaller networking groups, and they're starting to realize each of them isn't alone in that. Word might be getting around slowly. But it's finally getting around, and from the people it needs to be heard from.

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  • Lori Widmer July 27, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    I like that you presented both sides of your argument so well, Jenn. Thank you. 🙂

    Not sure I think the same way regarding the Twitter followers. I seem to have equal numbers (just slightly more followers than those I'm following). I tend to follow people who interest me in some way. I have odd criteria — they can't repeat the same post, I should see at least one RT in their recent feed, and their interests should mesh with what I'm looking to read.

    Oh, and if they send me an automated note trying to A)sell me on their book/service or B) convince me to follow on Facebook or LinkedIn I'm pretty much over them. The latter might be okay, but for me, it's a bit of a turn off. I'd rather they didn't thank me at all than send me anything automated.

    Reply
  • Paula July 27, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Funny you should mentioned some "experts" websites loaded with errors. I once read a self-proclaimed experts bio page, and despite all of her braggadocio all she succeeded in doing was proving she didn't know first person from third (she went back and forth in the same sentence, as I recall), and wasn't very proficient in subject-verb agreement.

    Good points about following-follower numbers, Jenn. I hadn't considered the reciprocal (Pavlovian) following game – if I follow you, you'll follow me – leading to a big disparity between following and followers. That's probably because I've fallen for it a few times only to discover they unfollowed me after a few weeks anyway. You're right – more than how many followers they have, how – and how often – they interact with those followers will be more telling.

    I really hate hearing of unscrupulous "experts" bribing students with discounts, rebates, or refunds in exchange for testamonials to help promote their supposed expertise. Not only is that unethical (and possibly illegal) you know unfavorable reviews won't be used. If you didn't get your money's worth, don't offer false praise in the hopes of a refund. Demand a refund.

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  • Jennifer Mattern July 28, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    There's certainly nothing "wrong" with following a similar number of people who follow you, as long as the interaction is there. Scale is something to consider. For example, if someone only has a few hundred followers and they follow a few hundred people, that's not unreasonable. Their follower count will grow over time if they add value.

    It's more when you get into the thousands to tens of thousands range. That's when it looks fishy and I take a closer look to see if the followers look legit or like they might have been purchased or come from a reciprocal follow scheme to artificially inflate their numbers.

    It always makes me sad when I see someone (usually a social media "expert") using follow-back schemes to raise numbers, only to tell me that they don't pay attention to those they follow at all. Instead they only pay attention to lists where they follow far fewer accounts. It's about ego-stroking, making others think you care what they have to say when your behavior clearly shows you don't.

    As for the "bribing for positive feedback" BS, I know exactly what you're talking about. And surprise surprise, it's coming from one of the worst offenders around. You're absolutely right. Legitimately happy customers don't get paid to say that. They offer that feedback willingly. Any kind of compensated feedback that's required to be positive is problematic. When you're doing it for pay, you're nothing but a pathetic shill. And other new writers deserve better than to be misled into buying something thanks to the unethical jerks on both sides of those kinds of deals.

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  • Ron Tillotson July 31, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    Paula, thank you for taking valuable time to express your concerns about seeking writing advice. As a new "full-time" freelance writer, I find it helpful to simply Google a so-called expert's name to see if any credible resources appear tied to their name. Also, as mentioned in several other comments, I look for "hype" adjectives and self-promoting phrases that raise warning flags about the experts unbiased sincerity and motives. I love everything I read from Jennifer and, coupled with other credible resources, feel I am on track to positively impact my readers.

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  • Lori Widmer July 31, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    Hi Ron — welcome to the blog and welcome to full-time freelancing. 🙂

    You make excellent points about the hype adjectives and self-promotional phrases. For me, the first red flag that goes up is that they're not good enough at writing to come up with something more compelling. And you're right — it speaks volumes about the sincerity of the person and the motive.

    You're right to love all of Jennifer's stuff. She's one of the best there is.

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