LENGTH: 9 minutes (1,703 words)
One of my favorite authors of productivity and time management books is Laura Vanderkam, who wrote 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, I Know How She Does It, and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.
Recently I was looking up Laura’s books on Amazon.com to share the links with another writer, and happened to notice the reviews. Laura’s books have many, many positive reviews, but some of them are like these:
- 168 hours for the rich and pretentious […] where this book falls far short is showing how to do that on an under $45,000 a year (with BOTH our incomes).
- The author is a little out of touch with the normal working person as she is self-employed stay at home type with a spouse generating above average income. Most the examples are of people of affluence with time to waste […]
- If you don’t have a huge surplus of cash flow this book is worthless.
- it is a very upper-middle-class targeted book
- However, I don’t believe this book is intended for anyone other than those people in the higher income brackets. Some of the advice was unrealistic for the average person.
- What I did not expect was the complete dismissal of differing income levels and life factors into the author’s approach. In the VERY FIRST chapter she admits her class privilege (flippantly I might add) and then totally disregards it for the next 200 some pages.
- She doesn’t address whether someone with no car and no air conditioning and $50,000 of debt should be spending money on a house cleaner […]
It’s true that Vanderkam does mention her nanny, her New York apartment, and other tips-offs that her family is well-off. But there is so much wrong with the attitude displayed in these reviews, and much of it is directly relevant to us writers. Let’s delve into it.
Write What You Know?
We writers are always told to “write what you know.” If you’re a top-level lawyer living in Boston, readers will smell the deception a mile off if you write about, say, Dust Bowl farmers during the Depression. Men couldn’t possibly write for women’s magazines because they don’t really “get” us. If we’re wealthy, we’re out of touch with the “common people” and can’t write a book for anyone but other well-off people. And so on.
But what these writing experts don’t mention is that “write what you know” doesn’t necessarily mean “write what you already know.” If that were the case, I would never have been able to write for magazines targeted to gay men, fitness competitors, moms (when I didn’t yet have a kid), African American PC users, children, college students, minority engineers, and restaurant managers. I also wouldn’t have been able to do copywriting for high-tech businesses, roofing companies, banks, and restaurants. I knew zilch about these topics before I was hired to write about them!
The writing world is overflowing with examples of writers who write what they don’t already know. I recently read Neal Stephenson’s book Seveneves, twice. I doubt he came into it with extensive knowledge of orbital mechanics, genetics, how languages change and develop over centuries, what happens when a catastrophic event renders the Earth uninhabitable, and how human relationships develop over years stuck in a space shuttle — and yet he turned out what I’d consider to be a masterpiece of science fiction.
It’s called “research.” And it’s something we writers should know intimately.
Can You Relate?
The idea that a well-off person couldn’t possibly relate to the concerns of “regular folk” is ridiculous. Any reasonably intelligent person can look around, read the news, and talk to people from all walks of life to gain an understanding of their lives. We writers should know that more than anyone!
By the same token, readers need to be able to relate to writers who are not exactly like them. As readers, if we want to learn from our reading we have to be able to make the leap…to connect the dots. “This tip won’t work for me as is, but how can I apply something like it to my life?” or “This writer is nothing like me, but what can I take away from this book?”
For example, I’ve read a lot of housekeeping books where the author assumes every reader is a devout Christian. Many of the tips involve praying for guidance when you’re deciding whether to switch from whole milk to 2%, and asking your husband for permission before finalizing your homemaking routine. That is so not for me. However, while I don’t fit these authors’ demographics, I can still appreciate the advice on scrubbing grout and creating meal plans.
Some readers expect a ridiculous amount of customization in their reading materials, like the reviewer who complained that Vanderkam’s book didn’t address whether “someone with no car and no air conditioning and $50,000 of debt should be spending money on a house cleaner.” If that’s you, consider whether you, if you were to work on a writing assignment about time management, would be inclined to write a tip that starts out, “If you’re someone with no car and no air conditioning and $50,000 of debt, here’s how to figure out if you should spend money on a housecleaner.” No?
Don’t let it bother you when a book, article, or blog post doesn’t relate precisely to your life…and at the same time, don’t feel bad if your writing isn’t 100% all-inclusive. It’s okay to write something strictly for a particular audience that you relate to. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to read it.
In the case of Vanderkam’s books, maybe you can’t afford to send out the laundry or hire a house cleaner (yet), but her point is to delegate out what you’re not good at so you can focus on your core competencies — the things no one else can do as well as you can, like building your career or spending quality time with your kids. Is there any way you can do that without a boatload of cash? Probably. You just need to use your intellectual abilities to figure it out without having the information spoon-fed to you.
Rich People Deserve Books, Too
As a freelance writer, you get to choose the demographic you write for. Maybe you do write books, articles, and blog posts for well-off women who have a lot of opportunities and support…and that’s okay! Don’t wealthy readers deserve materials targeted for them, just like everyone else? As long as it’s clear who your intended market is, you’re fine. If a reader can’t make the cognitive leap to how the book’s contents may be relevant to them, that’s their problem.
My book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie was written with women in mind. That is the audience I wanted to address.
The book received a three-star review on Amazon titled “Its written for women.” The review goes on to say, “I read the preview and she is giving out hints only for women, so I skipped buying it.” It’s perfectly fine for me to write a book intended for women, and it’s just as fine for a reader to not buy the book because it’s not intended for them. Of course, as we discussed, if that male reviewer wanted advice on how to do it all, he should have been able to get the instruction he needed in this book, just as my one male beta reader did. But again…his problem, not mine.
Where’s the Money?
The fact that many of us have trouble relating to people more well-off than we are may be a contributing factor to the low pay so many writers complain about. It’s hard for many writers to imagine that someone would be not only able, but willing to pay premium prices for anything…especially writing.
And yet these clients are out there, and they’re actually hesitant to hire bargain basement writers because they want the best. They’ll pass over a writer who wrings their hands over charging $100 for a sales page for the one who confidently asks for $1,000. Yes, there are even magazines that are ready to fork over $2.00-$2.50 per word for good writing when they’re in a rush. (I know because I’ve written for them!)
The people with money are the ones who can afford to hire you at a premium rate. Those people and businesses we’re complaining about because they can’t possibly relate to us “little people” — they’re the ones looking to hire the best and pay them what they’re worth. That’s why writers who market to big businesses earn more than those who write for solopreneurs or mom-and-pop shops. And why writers who target their ghostwriting services to CEOs and wealthy people with stories to tell earn more than those who ghostwrite for the cash-strapped. Sure, these writers may not be able to relate to their clients on a personal level…but again, but that’s what research is for.
The next time you find yourself irritated that a book or article isn’t precisely relevant to your situation, try two things: (1) Figure out how you can use the advice for your particular situation, and (2) Consider how an inability to relate to people in different demographics may be affecting your career as a freelance writer. Not only does it limit what audience you’re able to write for and what you’re able to write about, but it also hinders your earning potential.
As Morpheus said in The Matrix, free your mind. You’ll open up a world of reading possibilities, and also open up opportunities to earn more from your writing.
Your Freelance Writing Success Coach,
P.S. Looking for help breaking into freelance writing — or making it to the next level? Do yourself a favor and learn from a veteran freelancer with 20 years of experience. (Ahem…that’s me.) You can a take a look at my Freelance Writing Success Coaching here.