Are You Interfering With Your Readers’ Lives?

Are You Interfering With Your Readers' Lives?

A couple of weeks ago, Marc and I stumbled upon an ebook that, quite frankly, had us both stunned. Despite being well written, the information was dangerously misleading and in several areas, false. We spoke out in public about it, of course.

Marc and I realized, though, that this ebook was just one case amongst several where people (often innocently and unwittingly) end up damaging someone else’s life – by trying to help. This is a reminder for all of us that it’s not just buyer beware – it’s writer be careful, too.

Ahh, science fiction, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… Or as Ray Bradbury so eloquently put it:

Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.

Science fiction may be about ideas, but it also carries a warning that we should all pay attention to.

A recurring theme in science fiction is that of non-interference. From Star Trek’s Prime Directive to Stargate SG-1’s race of “Ancients”, it’s a tale often told: When one person or society interferes with another, even with the purest of intentions, the results can be devastating.

The internet, including the blogosphere, is a very powerful entity, because it gives voice to millions of people. But we are all aware of how power corrupts. Like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, corrupted by what he fought against, bloggers and business hopefuls obliviously walk the same path as the fated Dark Lord of the Sith.

The problem? Self-help manuals and do-it-yourself user guides.

I’m not talking about the manuals that promote get-rich-quick schemes or dodgy products peddled by snake-oil salespersons. Those we can spot a mile away. No, the self-help info-products I’m talking about are in fact more dangerous. They destroy websites, businesses and even lives.

From “How to SEO Your Blog Posts” to “101 Copywriting Tips for the Beginner” to psychology type e-books packaged as “user guides”, we find self-help manuals aplenty out there. Most have one thing in common: the authors don’t have the expertise or – perhaps worse – the qualifications to write on the subject.

Like a Kid with a Gun

Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.

~ Dr. Ian Malcolm. Jurassic Park (1993)

In science fiction, there’s often someone warning others of potential danger of interference. The group listens and avoids disaster, or the group doesn’t and chaos ensues.

This happens in real life, too. Take psychology-style self-help books as an example, arguably the single most destructive e-book on the internet today. I have personally witnessed the negative psychological effects these books can have on those who choose to read and believe the words as truth. Continued denial, avoidance and a perpetual cycle of repeated, destructive behaviour.

All because many authors write from their personal experience alone, which does not make them qualified to provide advice or help to others. In fact, they seriously lack in professional qualifications, the kind required to be dispassionate and unbiased – essential skills if you truly want to help a person.

When you don’t know the proper methods for providing advice and help, without knowing what to say and how to say it, you may as well be handing a child a loaded gun. By all means, go ahead and share your experiences with others, but before you decide to package your experience into a guide for others and sell it as an e-book, ask yourself:

Is your interference going to do more harm than good?

Writing on Any Topic

The example above related to psychology, but you can easily substitute psychology with “SEO advice” or “business tips” and the results are the same: a large amount of money required to repair the damage. Many people out there have learned their lessons the hard way, assuming that because it’s for sale, it must be accurate information.

Not so. Today we can find helpful blogs, ebooks and info products about all sorts of subjects, written by all sorts of people who aren’t at all qualified to sell this information in the first place. Worse, a common occurrence is that the information being sold is being embraced by people who seem to lack judgment enough to discern fact from… well, science fiction.

Advice for Those Selling or Seeking Self-Help

Most powerful is he who controls his own power.

~ Star Wars: The Clone Wars

As an author, you have some responsibility for the potential effects your words might have on others. No matter what the topic is, before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, be sure that you have the qualifications to write about whatever you are about to share. If not, move on to something else.

And if you’re about to buy information that claims to provide you with the self-help you feel you need, do yourself a favor. Check the facts. Is there a legal disclaimer in place? What does it say? Does the author have an About page? Are there any credentials that makes this person an authority? If the author has qualifications, exactly what are they and where do they come from? Is the educational facility a recognized one?

Now, of course, self-help books are not always a total waste of time. They can be inspiring, they can be uplifting, or they can help you reach your goals, from learning how to juggle to shaking off low self-esteem to improving your business. Good, valuable information should never be underestimated.

But a good self-help book knows its own limits. It makes accurate claims that can easily be backed by facts, studies and authorities of the subject. It has an appropriate disclaimer – visible on the website and clearly mentioned in all promotional copy – if the author is not qualified in certain areas. And it should always recommend that readers seek professional help.

It’s advice I strongly agree with.

About the Author: Marc Pieniazek is the Successful Ghostwriter and an SEO consultant who works to get you up in the rankings and up in the credibility department, too. Contact Marc to learn more.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. I agree with the central point of the article. There are a lot of ebooks on the web, and even print books, that are cobbled together from basic general tips and the author’s own limited experience. In fact, I sometimes think that this is what blogging is all about. Learn just enough to get writing and then try to pass yourself off as a expert. I have read so many articles about freelancing and blogging and they have an essential sameness to them. People are repeating the same tropes over and over. I think I’ve been quilty of it myself at times. I don’t know how much harm they are doing, but they sure aren’t doing much good. Say, doesn’t MWP have a few ebooks out?
    .-= John Hewitt´s last blog ..Project Management and Editorial Calendars for Freelance Writers =-.

  2. Well, it is a good warning and good intentions, however rather in vain. People with low competency level cannot objectively estimate their low competency level as they lack metacognitive skills for it. Dunning-Kruger effect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect So they don’t necessarily do it dishonestly, they just do not understand that their qualification is not suitable and might never get it.
    .-= Ada´s last blog ..???-?????? ?? ????????: ?????? ???????? ???????? =-.

  3. This is a tricky one. There are certain subjects that come with qualifications to prove that the author has the knowledge to write about it. However, quailfications alone don’t necessarily make an expert.

    It’s also difficult to define a level of expertise that is acceptable. Someone in their first year of running a small business may have valuable advice for those just starting out, but may not be able to advise someone who has had more experience. Unless the information is outrightly false, everyone has some value to offer.

    I think definitive claims can be harmful, (you will earn x amount in 6 weeks, you will be happier and more successful if you repeat this mantra every day) but ultimately believe it is at the reader’s discretion to pick and choose what information is suitable for them.

    I’ve read self help books which have been solely based on personal experience, no facts or studies or proven formulas. Some have helped me, but might not have helped someone else. some have missed the mark completely with me, I wouldn’t say they have been bad books just not for me.

    I believe the reader has a choice how and whether or not to use the information at hand and that there is value in reading a range of advice from good to bad to decide what is appropriate for youself.

    Interesting post!
    .-= Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Copify: Junk Food Content To Block Your Business’s Arteries? =-.

  4. LOL I’m in danger of committing this venial sin since I write about many topics!
    Anyway, most are just my opinions and when I write a unique content, I make sure I know what I’m saying. Thanks for reminder Agent.

  5. Mary E. Ulrich says:

    From your mouth to Fox’s ears. Wish some of the radio/TV personalities would understand this. Thanks Ada, referencing the Dunning-Kruger effect is perfect and something I’ve never heard of before.

    Agent X–thanks for your thoughts. Love the analogy to science fiction and quotes from Sci-Fi classics. This article would have more credibility if you identified yourself-sorry.

  6. Oops, sorry about that, Marc! Your beautiful “About the Author” is added in now and I hope it doesn’t sound too silly – still on my first coffee!

    @Amy – Those self-help/personal experience books are some of the worst. Seriously dangerous stuff, and much of it just subjective, biased, unconfirmed opinion.

    But I think it’s not so much buyer beware as writer be careful. People need to think a little more before writing stuff that can have serious effects on other people’s lives.

    @Ada – Ahh, good point and very true. “Be smarter! Write more carefully!” “But I’m not smart enough to know I should be smarter! GAH!” “Oh. Well. Write stupidies, then.”

    That’s… actually kind of depressing.

    @John – We only work for the Power of Good here. We’re also smart enough to avoid that Dunning-Kruger effect. Plus, we went to school and stuff. And got smart. And wrote smart things. And drank lots of coffee.

    🙂

  7. @Mary – Blame James on that one. I wrote that article and the byline was something James “had in hand” lol

    @Ada Thanks for sharing that link. I totally agree. A lot of these books are done with all the best intentions, but isn’t that what the road to Hell is paved with?

    @Amy Excellent points. However, when you know nothing of the topic, say SEO, how do you know if the information is outrightly false?

    @Poch You’re welcome 🙂

  8. I write from a combination of personal experience and theoretical knowledge. It’s hardly rocket science, and if you went to a library or bookstore, you’d find the same advice repeated over and over. I reframe it in a way that makes sense to my right-brained audience.

    And I still worry. I am acutely aware that I may have influence over someone’s business decisions. I tell them to do their homework. I tell them to not break the budget. And I don’t stray into areas that I know I know nothing about.

    Which, I guess, points to a big part of the problem: some people don’t know, some people don’t know they don’t know.
    .-= Stacey Cornelius´s last blog ..What happens when you try too hard (Marketing 101 revisited) =-.

  9. In general, this is good advice, but I think it’s far too general. I read this, and I read it again, and I think I understand, but the whole subject is vague and slippery.

    I can definitely agree that I don’t know enough to sell an ebook about SEO. I know a bit about it but I am not an expert. I can also agree that I don’t know enough to sell an ebook about… say… coping with anxiety disorder (or even something as near-universal as trying to lose weight), and I can see that if I did write one from the shallows of my non-knowledge it has the potential to really hurt someone.

    But where is the line? What is “qualified to write on a subject?” People like me often have extremely broad knowledge of a number of subjects in which we don’t have formal training. I don’t have a degree in history, but if I carefully research the life of Agrippina the Younger (mother of Nero) and decide to write a book about her, does my lack of educational credentials make me unqualified to write or sell this particular book?

    So ok, a book on Agrippina is not likely to actively hurt someone (unless they fall asleep reading it and fall off a chair or something). You mention business advice as another area in which to be wary. Again, what does this mean? If I write about “here are steps I took in setting up and marketing my small business, and here is my result, but be sure to consult your own attorney for advice pertaining to your situation,” am I hurting a reader?

    I’m having a hard time coming to grips with the warning. My purpose in writing is to offer information that helps people. Otherwise, I am an observer behind glass and there is no point in doing anything.

  10. Marc,

    Good post. Can’t say about the particular book that put the bee in your bonnet, but it did get me thinking quite hard about advice books and articles in general.

    I’m going to come down on the buyer-beware side, though. Dunning-Kruger effects are part of why, but the other part is in two things Amy beat me to saying: one, *having* qualifications doesn’t necessarily make you any good to write about a subject, either, and two, everyone’s got some value to offer. Unless they’re trying to be malicious, which is a subject for another time, I think you’ve got a right to tell me your advice on your subject.

    Whether I want to pay for it—call me a free-marketer, but I see the buying end as the place where the tough decisions should be made.

    I once read a diet and exercise book by Cher. Loved it, in fact. It’s probably still in a box here somewhere.

    Cher.

    Lots of people would have said “What the heck does she know?” and that’s their right. She said, “I’ve got ideas and I’d like to share them.” I do think that’s her right.

    Not saying that people shouldn’t be careful with what they write and how they package it, just as you suggest, but to me, I think it’s okay for writers to (offer to) interfere in their readers’ lives.

    Regards,

    Kelly
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..I’d Like to Buy a Cheat (and So Would You) =-.

  11. I have seen many books out there with authors who don’t have any qualifications at all. I don’t bother reading most anymore because I have found so many different types of advice to where I don’t know which are true.

    I’d rather stick to professionals if I need self help advice.

    But if I just want advice, I usually go to my friends. They may not be professionals, but they do help a lot at times.

  12. @Carol I think it is safe to say, you are the kind of responsible writer that others need to look up to.

    here are steps I took in setting up and marketing my small business, and here is my result, but be sure to consult your own attorney for advice pertaining to your situation

    Perfect. 🙂

    @Kelly,
    I agree. Everyone has value to offer. Everyone has knowledge they can pass on and probably should pass on to others. It’s not about who the author is however, it’s about the way the information is packaged and presented.

    It makes accurate claims that can easily be backed by facts, studies and authorities of the subject.

    Regardless of our opinions of Cher, I bet her book passes that “litmus” test. Unfortunately, many e-books don’t, and that is inherently dangerous.
    .-= Marc´s last blog ..6 Ways to Provide The Best Product Possible =-.

  13. I was impressed by the frankness of this article. I see many ebooks in the pets category which really should never have been written, let alone sold.

  14. The online self help ebooks are the ultimate “buyer beware”. Internet makes it very easy for pretty much anyone to write something from a “expert position” and build a pretty site around it and sell it like crazy.
    .-= John Paul Aguiar´s last blog ..Want To Make Money Blogging? Then Stop Using Entrecard =-.

  15. I like this because no one else will step up and say it:

    “Don’t write about shit that you don’t understand or have the experience necessary to do so.”

    99% of LD bloggers are just making it up as they go along. The same goes for bloggers blogging about blogging. It’s sick.

    Speak from experience, not from theory.
    .-= Nathan Hangen´s last blog ..Are You Too Scared to Become a Hero? =-.

  16. I don’t mean to be picky James. You know I think you’re great and I agree with most of your writings. The problem is that you don’t reveal your real name and neither does “Agent X”. We have no real proof about your legitimate background. That is why throwing this particular stone makes the glass in your house wobble a bit.
    .-= John Hewitt´s last blog ..Project Management and Editorial Calendars for Freelance Writers =-.

  17. @John *Points at his name tag* 🙂

  18. oooooK, so that was embarrassing.
    .-= John Hewitt´s last blog ..Project Management and Editorial Calendars for Freelance Writers =-.

  19. Thanks Marc. Here’s my quick, written at typing speed take:

    When I’m trying to get stronger, I don’t take advice from people who are weak. When I want my computer to be fixed, I don’t call a baker.

    The claims of many, many self-improvement books are completely unverifiable because there’s too much subjectivity (and I’m on board with your statements about recklessness as well). Do I want to be happy? I do. Has the person who says their book can make me happy gotten the same result I’m shooting for? Who the hell can know?

    Nobody’s ever going to accuse me of being burdened with a scientific mind, but I am very, very leery of anyone who speaks in absolute about things that we all define in different ways.

    Loved the post, by the way:)
    .-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..How To Have Tourette’s Part 16: Permission To Fall Apart =-.

  20. @John – I had that particular “we don’t know your name therefore we don’t know you’re qualified” stone thrown at me in December. Quite hard. I still have bruises.

    And frankly, I don’t see how it’s relevant.

    Please explain to me how a name provides me with credentials and qualifications. It doesn’t. What does is past history, education, the books on my shelves, schooling, training, my work history and employment and life experience itself.

    Let me tell you, I have all of that up the wazoo.

    But what would you do with my name? Would you begin Googling my past employer and call human resources? And the other employers I worked for – would you call them too? Would you want references? Look up my university and ask for my transcripts?

    All your names here in this comment section – should we begin Googling them and digging into personal, private and sensitive information?

    What you are implying, John, is that because the name I use isn’t my given name, everything else about me thus becomes questionable. That is a red herring and a fallacy, because a name IS A LABEL.

    I could hand you my middle name, my nickname, WHATEVER name I wanted and if it was female, you would say, “Ah, there we go, James is obviously on the up and up now. It’s all good.” Would you really call my university and say, “Did James TRULY take English Literature and I want to see proof of his grades? Did James REALLY pass Critical Thinking with a 98% and I’d like the phone number of his teacher to double-check that?”

    Come on, John. I thought you were better than that. The label doesn’t prove the credentials or qualifications. The history does.

  21. @Josh – You scientific mind, you!

  22. @James

    I apologize.
    .-= John Hewitt´s last blog ..Project Management and Editorial Calendars for Freelance Writers =-.

  23. Kathleen K. O'Connor says:

    It seems that most personal development bloggers don’t necessarily have the credentials to blog about self-help or personal development. For example, Zen Habits. I don’t think the author has the official qualifications to talk about personal development. He just writes based on life experience and personal study. But I think that’s fine. A lot of people listen to him because it’s clear that he’s not just regurgitating information. He’s talking about stuff that he has actually applied to his life. If he had a PhD, it would reassure his readers, but I am not sure if it would actually make that much of a difference in the quality of his content. There are plenty of great people in this world who don’t have degrees.

    I have a BA, but totally unrelated to what I do. Does that make my work less worthy than a competitor who has a major in the field? I don’t think so. I think my work will speak for itself. I would hate to be discredited just because I don’t have a degree. Self-study and the constant urge to improve yourself matters too.

    In traditional cultures, degrees obviously don’t matter. You earn your place in society through your experience. Elders are revered, and knowledge is passed down through oral tradition. Does the fact that they don’t have M.A.’s and PhD’s make them less worthy of giving advice? Doubt it.

    I think that experience, not degrees, is what matters. For certain fields, however, having certifications and qualifications is absolutely essential. For example, in psychology or medicine. So, I understand what you mean. But I often buy info products from people who probably don’t have degrees in whatever they are selling, but I don’t feel that it makes the information any less valuable.

    And readers need to verify facts. They can’t just read something and then believe everything it says. That would be, well, dumb. It’s our job as citizens of the world to do some research and read between the lines. I’m sure most of the people at Fox News have the qualifications to be reporters and journalists, but that doesn’t mean we should believe everything Fox News says.

    Phew, sorry for the long-winded comment. Thank you for starting an important discussion 🙂

  24. I think you have to be more wary if it is well written because it will be able to mislead more people. If it is not so good then it won’t be able to fool anyone.

  25. This is a good debate.

    @James I don’t think that the self help / personal experience books are necessarily harmful if the person writing it has experience that I’m interested in. Like Josh said, if he’s looking to become stronger, he seeks the advice of stronger people. That’s what I’m looking for in those kinds of books I guess. People who have been in similar situations and seen what their take / course of action has been. I’d never take it as gospel but appreciate that there are people out there who would.

    @Marc – I totally understand what you’re saying about not having the experience so not knowing if the information you give is false. I know there are a lot of people who decide themselves to be experts on something they may know nothing about. I think it’s because I’m cautious in nature when choosing advice anyway and research as much as I can that I don’t feel at threat from people writing about things they pretend to know
    about.

    Interesting topic 🙂
    .-= Amy Harrison´s last blog ..Copify: Junk Food Content To Block Your Business’s Arteries? =-.

  26. It really is dangerous to follow self-help e-books to the T. Just recognize who the writer is, and carefully make your OWN decisions!
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..The Curse Of Making Too Much Money And Not Pursuing Your Dreams =-.

  27. I will have to say that for me it’s kind of hard to really trust many of these so called experts.

    I normally just stick to the known names, like at the book store or library. Honestly it seems like all these self-help e-books and blogs are doing is regurgitating what has been written already. I mean seriously how many other ways can you “win friends and influence people” I myself have a blog and even though I would like to write an e-book and sell it since I am broke and unemployed, I wouldn’t want to cause harm to anyone really looking for true advice.

    Now I do want to say that if you are writing your own experiences, it’s okay because someone out there could be in the same situation that you were in your guide could help I am sure it could help more than harm if you wrote something truthful.
    .-= Wilson Usman´s last blog ..I found my business partner through Craigslist =-.

  28. Leona Pitej says:

    Thank you for this post. My hope is that those who need to read it will. Unfortunately, perhaps ironically, it is those who are so willing to dispense advice who don’t seek it out for themselves. I’ve come to find that when it is stated as always or never that the truth is somewhere in between.

  29. Merryl Rosenthal says:

    It’s just too bad this article can’t be printed
    in the sky for everyone to see and read.

    I made the mistake of buying a self-help SEO book
    by a copywriter, and I was so busy marking all
    the errors of grammar, syntax, and style that I
    finally put the darned book down for good.

    I’m thinking about rubbing some peanut butter on
    the book and giving it to my dogs to chew.

Trackbacks

  1. Am I a Trust Agent? | PoeWar says:

    […] to trusting people. I left a couple of critical comments on an article at Men With Pens called, Are You Interfering With Your Readers’ Lives? that reflected the fact that, unfairly or not, I am still a little peeved that James Chartrand lied […]

  2. […] Are You Interfering With Your Readers’ Lives? – Agent X at Men With Pens Are you interfering with your customer’s lives? Agent X argues that as writers, we are responsible for how our words affect others. Also, that we should only write on topics we are experts in. What do you think? […]

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