Once upon a time, I wrote only about topics I knew well. But those days are long gone.
Back then, I wrote local news articles for my school’s newspaper. I adopted a dog and blogged about how I took care of her. I wrote technical documents in my work as a software engineer. I documented my own life in various diaries and journals.
School news, dog care, tech docs, reflections on my own life. You know, topics I have at least some level of expertise in.
Becoming a freelance writer has changed all that.
Now, this isn’t me becoming all negative Nancy denouncing the state of the online writing industry. I personally feel quite the opposite in fact. Freelance writing has been a godsend for me, allowing me to indulge in my passions, earn some side income, and learn about topics I never would’ve even thought about otherwise.
But whenever I see some of these article topics I get assigned, a part of me can’t help but feel misplaced being trusted as an “authority” on something I know little to nothing about, even though I put extensive research into every piece. And that scares me just a wee bit, with how much people turn to the Internet now for information and second opinions.
Let me share with you an innocuous little anecdote from my early freelance writing journey. If you are a current or aspiring freelance writer, I hope you’ll take this anecdote and consider the ethics of what you choose to submit to your clients (or anything you publish, really). And for anybody reading this, hopefully this comes as another friendly reminder to not just immediately trust what you read online, even if the source appears trustworthy beyond all doubt.
My First Odd Job
I’ve never really worked in any of your traditional “dog-walking” or “mowing the lawn” odd jobs growing up. I don’t know if freelance writing is supposed to count as one, but after securing my first few clients, I can definitely say this is some of the “oddest” paid work I’ve ever done.
One of my clients was in the casino and gambling space. I found their advert on Problogger and applied because hey, why not.
Mind you, I’m no casino expert. I knew how Blackjack worked from that movie “21” about counting cards… and that was pretty much it. I think I mentioned in my pitch that I played casual poker or something, so hire me.
Suddenly, there I was, a freelance newbie with a gig writing about casinos. Definitely pretty odd if you ask me!
A few weeks down the road, this client assigned me a piece on the top 5 largest must-visit casinos in the UK. Yes, this is exactly what I as a Seattle-based freelance writer with an interest in dogs, sports, and self-improvement envisioned myself writing about.
This article seemed like a cakewalk. A list of 5 casinos in the UK, with two to three meaty paragraphs about each one? Easy enough to research and produce in a few hours time.
And for the most part it was, save for something I discovered when writing about Genting Club Casino in Sheffield.
I was writing about the different restaurant options available near Genting Club and found a place called Hou-Mei, an Asian café that was advertised as “authentic Chinese cuisine” by multiple corroborating sources, as well as the casino itself.
Cool, I thought, I’ll just put add the following line and call it that:
“For those craving Asian cuisines, try Hou-Mei restaurant, which offers up tasty and authentic Chinese cuisines.”
Except I re-read the line and it just didn’t look quite right. I decided to Google Hou-Mei restaurant to see how authentic the menu really was.
On their official page, Hou-Mei has a menu from August 2019 which does offer some more authentic selections: claypot rice, congees, and hotpot. Yum. This was great, but August 2019 could’ve been outdated. I kept searching.
That’s when things started to get weird. I found a menu on Sluurpy, which looked like a Yelp for UK restaurants. Didn’t know if the site was legit, but it was ranked on the first page of Google, so there’s that.
I mean, have a gander at that menu. Olives? Sourdough bread? What? Authentic Chinese cuisine?
And that’s only the starters. Keep scrolling and you’ll find… hummus and flatbreads? Charcuterie board? A freakin’ Caesar salad? (Vegetable gyoza was probably the only Asian thing on the menu — nice try, I guess?)
I found the same menu on another site, RestaurantGuru. This had to be a joke, right?
I found many other online pieces, both reviews and complete articles, praising Hou-Mei for its “authentic Chinese cuisine.” That got me thinking, how many of these writers really knew what they were talking about? If I were a visitor to Genting Club and wanted some Chinese, would I have just blindly trusted these anonymous writers?
From doing a little more digging, I’m sure (well, at least pretty sure), that these menus I found on Sluurpy and RestaurantGuru were probably wrong, and that Hou-Mei’s August 2019 menu was a more accurate representation of their offerings.
But what if I had stopped my research after seeing these (fake?) menus, which, again, were ranked really high on Google? I’d probably just blast the place for being non-authentic. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? A tourist in the area may be short of time and can only do so much research. He or she might find Hou-Mei’s menu first, or Sluurpy’s, and make a snap decision based on that. There’s just so much information out there and it’s impossible to synthesize it all.
And then there’s me, who, since I’ve never physically eaten at Hou-Mei, can’t 100% verify what’s going on with their menu for the purposes of my article. Alas, to not add another potential online source claiming some unverified “authentic” cuisine, I deleted my previous sentence, and wrote instead:
“Visitors have also lauded Hou-Mei for its Asian-inspired cuisines.”
Which, I thought, was a good middle-ground way to put it. Certainly, this time I wasn’t lying or pretending to know about a restaurant I’d never eaten at.
Be Careful What You Read Online!
All this is rather frivolous, since if Hou-Mei really was serving up “authentic Chinese” Caesar salads, it isn’t really the end of the world. But it certainly does remind us all to be wary of what we read online, especially for more serious topics.
The crazy part is, the rule we were told in school where you should always “cross-check your sources” doesn’t really apply to the Internet. That’s because a lot of research is just synthesizing and cross-referencing stuff that others like me written, creating infinite circular dependencies where all sources corroborate each other, yet none is more reliable than the other.
Again, I really don’t mean to come across as condemning the online freelance writing industry, but misinformation online is rampant. Writers, do your part and be responsible for what you put out there. Readers, don’t be so quick to trust any one source of information.
Take it from me, a freelance writer who is decent at writing, but sometimes knows nothing about the topic you’re currently reading about.