Free Advice Friday: Converting the Nonbelievers

A late post is better than no post, I say. I’m back home for a short spell, fully expecting to head back to my parents’ house in a week or less. But for now, I’m checking in.


You should’ve seen the look.

My mom introduced me to someone recently and announced proudly “She’s a writer!”

Right away, the question.

“What do you write?”

I’ve learned. If I want to move on quickly, I simply say “Corporate writing for companies of all sizes.”

If I want to ensure the conversation comes to a halt, I say something like “I write about risk management, insurance, workers’ compensation…”

This encounter required the first response.

But what happened next, oh, we’ve all been there.

The person looked a bit pitifully on me as though my career choice wasn’t necessarily paying my bills.

You know the drill — you’re a writer. You don’t have a “real” job, so while you’re really enjoying the freedom of working in your underwear, you’re not really supporting yourself.

Yes, that look.

I’ve had it before. Hell, I’ve even had that look with the following accompanying asshole statement: “I could help you earn sooo much more money!” (Oh yes, he did say it.)

In this case, it was more subtle. The person, who was discussing financial matters with us, turned his full attention to my mother from that moment on. I’d lost credibility. It wasn’t obviously dismissive, but make no mistake — it was dismissive.

We’re writers. Worse, we’re freelance writers. We must be starving, right?

Oh, how wrong can a person be?

What I found entertaining in this scenario, and in most cases when this comes up, is that I probably earn more than the people who are looking at me thinking I’m wasting my life. In this iteration of my writing life, I make over double what I did when I was someone’s employee.

Funny how calling the shots yourself can do that.

Yet there’s a stigma that comes with our chosen careers that is tough to shake. We are writers, therefore we must be starving, drunk, or both.

So beyond carrying your 1099s and a copy of your latest tax return in your pocket, how do you overcome the stereotype?

Should you?

That’s the trickier question. I don’t give a flying fig what anyone thinks about what I do or do not make. It’s really none of their business. However, I think I have a responsibility — all writers do, I believe — to set the record straight to some extent.

That’s not to say we need to beat them over the head with the “I make three times what you do, pal” outrage. In fact, I’m more inclined to drop subtle hints.

Talk about the work.

Yes, I mention the types of clients I work with. Global corporations. Household name companies. I talk about what I write — websites, case studies, articles for executives… This exercise alone sends a much different message than getting one’s back up and defending oneself to a clueless assumption.

Talk about the perks.

“Yes, I was fortunate enough to double my revenue this year by picking up three new clients.” Or talk about the vacations to exotic places, or the conferences where you meet your clients. Or the car you’ve just upgraded to. Brag a little. Mention your busy schedule alongside your need to get away on that European vacation just to get some downtime.

Talk with the language of wealth.

Revenue instead of income. Clients instead of customers. Contracted projects instead of gigs. All of these subtle language shifts send a more potent message about the seriousness of what you do. I’m prone to peppering industry jargon into a conversation whenever I’m facing a rather difficult case of dismissiveness.

Let it go.

Your job isn’t to convert them, but to leave enough breadcrumbs to maybe change their minds about being so rude in their assumptions going forward. There are some people who will look down on what you do no matter what you do or say. In one case, I had a very rude individual at a dinner party in Italy pay plenty of attention to me until he asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he immediately turned to the person on the other side of him and started a conversation, leaving his back to me the rest of the night. I wasn’t a scientist (like he was) so suddenly I didn’t matter. And right there, I decided I didn’t care. He did me a colossal favor by revealing who he was and then relieving me of the obligation to be nice to him. If you’re facing someone like that, let it go. The unbelievers don’t belong in your orbit.

Writers, how often have you faced the “you’re just a writer” attitude?

What’s the worst case you’ve had?

How have you converted the nonbelievers?

How much giddy joy do you get in knowing they’re revealing how uninformed they are?

About the author




  • Paula Hendrickson January 12, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    The reaction I get tends to be more of, “Oh, then you have lots of free time.”

    No. I work regular business hours like anyone else. And this times when I take a day or part of a day off mid-week? I tend to make up for those by working on weekends to make sure I don’t get behind.

    The funny thing was two people seemed to think writing about the TV industry meant I was paid like someone who works in it. I wish! Who wouldn’t love a multi-million dollar contract?

    Enjoy your time at home, however brief it may be. You could probably use the normalcy.

    • lwidmer January 15, 2018 at 9:48 am

      Oh, the free-time myth! Isn’t that one cute? I’d love to have the free time I’m assumed to have. I can take off, but I have to make it up. What they don’t see is how we bust our butts to get work in ahead of time and done (and hopefully paid for) before any vacation happens. It’s either that or we’re toting tablets or laptops on vacation — no thank you.

  • Anne Wayman January 13, 2018 at 10:47 am

    I generally get either a shrug and an ‘oh that’s nice’ or something which I just smile at, or genuine interest. Real interest seems to happen most.

    I have been known to say something like ‘yeah, I love it. I make a nice income and have real control over my time.’

    • lwidmer January 15, 2018 at 9:52 am

      I like that response, Anne. It’s more affirming than to challenge them to a duel using bank statements. 😉

      I had a relative at a party once say “So I hear you write books.” He’d heard it secondhand. When I told him what I actually did, he was even more impressed — he worked in finance, so he “got” my specialty. That made for a really nice conversation as I got what he did, too.

      Sometimes the conversation just goes in nice places, so I think we’re smart not to assume too much by one question.

    • Paula Hendrickson January 15, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      Oh! I’m sure you guys get this one, too: “You’re a writer? I am, too!” Only they’ve never been published or sold a thing, and probably haven’t even written more than a title page.

  • Krista January 17, 2018 at 8:54 am

    I live in a somewhat rural area where basically nobody writes for a living, so when I tell people what I do I’d say 99% of them treat me as though I’m earning a bit of spare change while my mechanic husband supports us. (Note: For the past three years I’ve made more than him.) I have a three-year-old and work 25 hours a week on average, but my three work days start at 5 a.m. By the time most people are getting to the office I have half an eight-hour day clocked in. Sooooo I find it very annoying when people say it’s good he goes to a babysitter for part of the week because it gives him some socialization and gives me “a break.” LOL I guess it’s just mainly that people don’t get it, but it is very insulting. After almost 11 years I’m (almost) used to it and trying my best not to care. The worst case: someone telling me what “a waste” it was that I was doing this instead of using my education degree–ouch!

    • lwidmer January 17, 2018 at 9:33 am

      A waste? Are they serious? Seems to me the degree gave you the background to do what you’re doing, Krista. I might have responded “Yes, on the surface that may seem to be the case. But I earn a full-time salary working part time, so I’m okay with that misconception.”

      In your case (as in mine — used to live in a rural setting), it is mostly that they don’t get it. The tradition is you left the house to work. It’s a perception issue more than anything. Few people intend to be insulting — they’re just not used to it.

      Truth is it’s not much different here in the suburbs. I had a man — a working writer, no less — who’d been on TV a number of times — nearly drop over when he learned my hourly rate.

      I think you’re right — not caring is the better approach. 🙂

      • Krista January 17, 2018 at 9:41 am

        Yes, almost all of my work is related to educational assessment. You need a BEd to even be considered in most cases. I love that response! I feel like I get so flustered when people ask what I do that I rarely think of anything that good!

        • Krista January 17, 2018 at 9:43 am

          And I agree that most people probably aren’t trying to be insulting! Enjoy your time back in your own home.