How to "Fake it ’til you Make it" (Without Being an Unethical Schmuck)

Earlier this week on my PR blog I shared some thoughts on how social media supports liars, giving some examples of how even colleagues in the freelance writing industry have gotten caught up in it. Commenter J. Toman brought up the concept of "fake it 'til you make it." I'm sure you've heard that before. It comes up now and again in the freelance writing community. It's about acting successful early on, in order to become successful.

Is there validity to "fake it 'til you make it?" Sure. But there's also this misconception that the concept justifies dishonesty with others -- that you can flat out lie about things like credentials and experience to make yourself look good, to ultimately get those things so you can be honest later on.

Being dishonest about what you've done and what you can do are unethical any way you cut it. And do you really want to kick off a career, or career change, in such a negative way? You don't have to. You just need to look at "fake it 'til you make it" in a different light. There's no reason to turn into some unethical schmuck just to land gigs. You can succeed and keep your integrity too.

3 Ways to "Fake it 'til you Make it" (Ethically)

1. Highlight the good instead of embellishing the irrelevant.

How would you feel if you hired an accountant only to later find out they turned a job in the filing room of a firm into a supposed accounting career? You might feel scammed. And you would have been. Why make your own clients feel that way (because let's face it -- chances are good you'll be found out)?

Don't turn irrelevant work histories into careers that never existed. Any credibility you legitimately build can be undermined by those kinds of lies early on. Instead, look for good things you can highlight.

For example, even if you're new and without professional experience, there's always something to highlight.

  • If you want to be a parenting writer, focus on the fact that you've raised three kids even if you have no writing credentials.
  • If you want to be a business writer, emphasize your corporate work experience or success as an entrepreneur even if you've never written a word for someone else.
  • Taking some courses in your specialty area? Even if you haven't earned a degree yet, you can still honestly say you've "studied X, Y, and Z" if they're relevant to your writing work.

It's about picking the best qualities to feature; not telling outright lies. You "fake" a professional image by choosing honest things to emphasize while leaving other elements out -- it's about exuding confidence based on what you do have going for you, even if it's not as much as the competition.

2. Create more positives.

If you don't feel like you have enough positive attributes to promote your services as a freelance writer, create some! Take a course. Attend some lectures or seminars.

If you have no work experience that's relevant, you can address that too. Help a friend or family member or a local nonprofit with a small project or two -- just enough to give you examples to show new prospects that you know what you're doing.

Want to be a sales copywriter? You'll probably want numbers to back you up. So go get them. Start with a project of your own. Then you can use your own sales figures based on that copy to back you up rather than using clients as guinea pigs.

You don't have that dream background to promote, but at least you'll have something -- whether it was paid work or not. You "fake" a gig history without having to lie about what you've done.

3. Convince yourself of confidence.

The most important element of "faking it 'til you make it" isn't about faking things to others. It's about fooling yourself. It's about convincing yourself that you're a confident professional even if you're not yet.

Many freelancers start out lacking confidence. They don't think they should earn professional rates because they're new, no matter how much specialty area experience they might have. So they compromise their career and settle into ruts.

You move up and grow your business when you have confidence -- or at least when you can convince yourself that you do.  Just don't mistake faking confidence for faking external elements of your career like experience or even basic ability. You need some foundation to back up that confidence. Don't have it yet? Then go back over my first two tips.

You can "fake it 'til you make it" and it can really get your career moving in the right direction. But if you take the approach of dishonesty with clients, it can also send your freelance writing career into a tailspin down the line.

Only you can decide what kind of professional you want to be -- one people can trust or one they can't. Before you consider a dishonest approach (not that I suggest considering it at all), take some time to figure out if you really have more going for you than you think. Chances are good you have ways to twist your honest experiences into the professional image you want rather than making things up.

And hey, if you have to fake a bit of confidence along the way, no worries. The best part of faking confidence is that eventually you'll really have it.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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14 thoughts on “How to "Fake it ’til you Make it" (Without Being an Unethical Schmuck)”

  1. Excellent post, Jenn! Having worked with people who committed the first sin, I’ve seen how their credibility goes down the toilet the minute they utter something that’s obviously not true. It’s a lot of work to create a good impression, but it takes no time at all to ruin that impression. And good luck getting it back!

    Because I’ve worked in a technical area for years, I’m able to transfer my technical “translation” abilities to all sorts of areas. Not once have I said, “Yes, I know all about that” because it’s not so. Instead, I say “Here’s how my current background mirrors what you’re looking for.”

    Love the suggestion to attend seminars and meetings. It’s also a great way to become part of that culture and community.

    • Absolutely right Lori. It doesn’t take much to kill your credibility, and once lost it’s extremely difficult to earn back. And definitely. If you claim to know everything about something with clients, they should know you’re full of shit. Interestingly, a few weeks back a client told me the reason I’m his first go-to person was because of things like me telling him when I’m not qualified to write about a topic, and I turn it down. People appreciate honesty, and I’ve found that to be especially true when you get into higher paying markets (as opposed to the inherently unethical low end gigs like illegal rewrites).

  2. I like that you gave some real, positive ways to “fake it” as many newbies sell themselves short. And those that do that, typically are doing so because they are ethical and can’t imagine being dishonest.

    When I made the transition of 30+ years in corporate to freelancing, I had a lot more for my portfolio than I originally thought. Great ideas, Jenn.

    • They really do. And the thing is, no one has to. There’s always something good you can highlight. Maybe you’ll find your strengths don’t suit the market you want to target. But then you change your market and you make those strengths work for you. Even if you’re intent on that market choice, there are always ways to build credibility quickly that don’t involve lying. If they’d put half that time spent misleading people into real work, there would be no issue whatsoever.

      And you’re a great example. Sometimes people forget — especially in career change — that they have years of experience under their belt in some area or another. You just have to look at your history from a client’s perspective instead of your own sometimes to really see the breadth of credentials you have.

  3. Great insight and tips, Jennifer – honesty and integrity in all areas is so important. With the abundance of scammy stuff online, it’s vital to be above-board at all times to maintain credibility.

    • Being honest with clients is definitely important and a way to set yourself apart. I’m still shocked that so many are surprised by honest comments. They still find it refreshing too. It’s different from the scammy crap they’re fed in copy, and it’s different from the “yes men” types who’ll say or do anything a client wants instead of helping them figure out what they actually need.

  4. Boy, all of your confidence and mojo has just GOT to rub off on us, eh? I find it difficult not to be the “yes man,” because that’s my personality type. And it has gotten me into more ruts than I care to recall in my short freelance career. But, with a little “fakin’ it,” a reassessment of my valuable, marketable skills and a sense of adventure to dive in, it may be time to move up a little.

  5. Hmmm. Well, those are some very interesting insites. I have to agree with you on the importance of self-respect and confidence. Your work is only as good as what you think of it. If you don’t believe in yourself, how are you going to sell yourself. And, if you don’t sell yourself, then who is?

    Thank you for the great article. I am the same way about my work.

  6. It is sad when people underestimate themselves, but it’s hard not to when you see such low rates, a bad economy, freelancers saying how times have changed, etc…

    Still, people are attracted to those who look in demand. Knowing you’re unemployed, desperate, and depressed isn’t attractive in any field (private or professional.

  7. This policy of ‘fake it til you make it’, has been something I’ve used plenty when I may have been feeling a bit inadequate (ethical version). It’s a matter of really believing that someone who’s more successful than you just has more experience. You can work hard and get there too … 🙂

    The ethical version of ‘fake it til you make it’ can help a lot until you reach that point of experience and success. Good luck to all freelancers as you’re making new goals for the New Year.

  8. Have you watched the Ted talk that Amy Cuddy gave on this topic?

    She did a couple experiments that showed how effective “high power poses” could be in making people “act as if.”

    The differences between those who engaged in the high power poses vs. low power poses is impressive.

    • I haven’t, but it sounds like a good one. It doesn’t surprise me that she’d see results along those lines. How we present ourselves can have a big impact on confidence, which in turn can lead to success. I’ll definitely make some time to check that out. Thanks for letting me know about it. 🙂

      For anyone else who wants to check it out, here’s a post about it on the blog (video is at the end):


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