In today’s post, I want to share with you a recent interview I had with Kelly Boyer Sagert, a 25-year veteran of freelance writing. Kelly was the managing editor of a regional magazine publishing house and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Kelly also guest blogs periodically for us here at Freelance Writing Riches and we love hearing from her and enjoy learning from her as well!
Q: Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got interested in freelance writing
A: I was interested in writing as a child and my high school counselor encouraged me to get a journalism degree, but my 15-year-old brain thought that writing for a living sounded like an endless series of homework assignments. So, I got a degree in psychology with a focus on communications – and then took two years of college-level business classes and got a job in a bank.
When I got pregnant with my first son, though, I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to write for a living. It was a craving that bordered on an obsession and it has never left me.
Q: What was your first freelance writing job and how did you land it?
A: My father owns a funeral home and a stray cat moved in. In 1990, I wrote an essay about that situation titled “Odd Jobs” and submitted it to Cats Magazine, a national magazine that has since gone defunct. It was the first piece I’d ever submitted anywhere – and the editor bought it for $35. If I thought I was hooked before, hah! I really was now!
Q: How long did it take you to build your freelance writing business to where it is now? What were some of your key moments/milestones along the way?
A: Well, this is my 25th year of professional writing and, when I started in 1990, I was having and raising my children and not looking for fulltime work. Significant milestones during early years included:
- 1993: began freelancing for a newspaper, where I learned plenty about interviewing and deadlines, how to work effectively with editors, and how to handle people who were somewhat adversarial
- 1995: chosen to write author interviews for the Writer’s Club on AOL where I got to interview successful authors, editors and agents; this also got me in on the ground floor of online writing
- 1996: published my first book, About Boomerangs: America’s Silent Sport
By the time that my younger son was in kindergarten in 1997, I’d been freelancing part time for 7 years and I was offered a fulltime job as the managing editor of a magazine publishing house. I took the job and that lasted for four years before the flagship magazine closed down. I learned plenty from this experience that has helped me with my own writing. I then had a six-year period where I served as the executive director of a countywide nonprofit agency, freelancing quite a bit with my writing on the side – and then I’ve written fulltime, ever since.
The Right Mindset
Having the Right Mindset is key to becoming a successful freelance writer. But, this can be challenging, especially for new writers who don’t know what to expect as they move forward.
Q: What were the biggest hurdles you faced along your path to success?
A: Early on, the goal was to balance my writing with raising my young children. Once they were both in school all day, I’d say my biggest challenge was finding enough clients who were willing to pay the rates I needed. When I accepted lower paying jobs, I was working around the clock.
Q: Did you ever feel like giving up and throwing in the towel? What made you stick with it?
A: Never! I seriously have never considered giving up. Not for one nanosecond.
Q: What can you share about the mental side of becoming of a freelance writer? What are the keys to success?
A: There are six keys to success:
- The first is persistence. You cannot give up. You’ll have days of tremendous highs – and days that just plain stink. Get into the mindset that both of these will pass. Enjoy the big successes, ride out the lousy days and know that most days will fall somewhere in between.
- The second is to have an open mind, a flexibility. The reality is that many of the specific writing plans that I have had didn’t work out – a book idea that I thought was fantastic, for example, fizzled. In 1995-ish, I got an agent for the idea (about writers on the internet) but the publishing houses didn’t think it would have longstanding appeal. Disappointing for me (and wrong by them!), but other opportunities opened up that I never would have considered.
- The third factor is to go out and experience life! You cannot constantly create output without taking in amazing experiences, whether that involves nature walks or taking classes at the college – or something else entirely. Step out of your comfort zone!
- The fourth key is to be a lifelong learner and keep refining your skills. The more you learn, you can more easily brainstorm ideas and the more you’ll have to offer editors, publishers and clients.
- The fifth is networking. I’ve gotten plenty of interesting work simply by word of mouth and writer’s conferences do so much to charge the creative batteries – plus another stream of income of mine is from speaking at conferences. Win/win!
- There is a sixth factor – and that’s to tune into life’s undercurrents. For me, that’s listening to what God is planning for my life. Others may call it listening to the universe. But, whatever you call it, there are subtle cues all around us that can’t be heard in the hustle and bustle.
The Right Knowledge
Having the Right Knowledge allows freelance writers to specialize and carve out a niche for themselves, allowing them to garner higher rates and expertise.
Q: How important do you think it is to develop a specialty or area of expertise as a freelance writer?
A: Developing areas of specialty can definitely make you more attractive to editors and clients. Sure, you know that you can write about a subject that you’ve never covered before, but editors and clients feel more assured when they see links to content that is reasonably similar to what they’d like for their own projects.
Q: What did developing a specialty do for your freelance writing income?
A: Early on, I specialized in becoming proficient with interview-based pieces and that has helped me get more writing assignments than I can count. Interviews help writers get better stories and it helps you to rise above the competition when competing for a writing project.
Topic-wise, the fact that I specialize in writing about boomerangs, as just one example, has gotten me great publicity. I got my first book contract when a small press publisher asked me, “Hey, aren’t you the boomerang writer?” I got my first encyclopedia credits when Macmillan called me and said, “We hear that you’re the boomerang writer.” And, to date, I still think I’m the only female in the world who has published a book on a boomerang-related topic.
When I wrote a book about controversial baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, that led to my appearing in an ESPN documentary and provided me with a speaking engagement at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
A specialty that I developed – writing about the Underground Railroad and Civil War era of history – led to my first play, which led to other plays and ultimately to my first PBS documentary credits.
The Right Branding
Branding allows freelance writers to showcase their expertise and unique perspective to clients. Online branding can include the look and feel of your website and online properties, and even extend to how you present yourself to clients and your unique traits.
Q: What is personal branding to you and why do you think it so important?
A: To me, the core of personal branding is to be genuine, to be true to yourself. That way, all that you say, do and create will naturally fall in line with and contribute to personal branding. If you consciously create a brand or pretend to be something you’re not, that is counterproductive and not the way I want to live.
Q: What are the keys to an effective website, one that will connect to prospective clients?
A: Ironically, I spend so much time creating content for other people’s websites that I fall short on mine – and I’m currently in the process of trying to remedy that. I think that using basic SEO techniques can be helpful. Identify relevant niche keywords that aren’t hugely competitive and use them in your URLs, title tags, meta description tags and H tags, however they can read naturally and well.
It’s crucial to create clear and effective messaging about who you are and what you do. Collect testimonials because then you don’t need to brag about yourself – and self-boasting isn’t always believable, anyhow.
Q: Are there any tools you recommend for building an attractive and effective website quickly?
A: I’m a fan of WordPress – sweet and simple. The Yoast plugin helps with essential SEO and Akismet is crucial if you don’t want to be buried in spam.
The Right Clients
Working with the Right Clients is the foundation for a thriving freelance writing career. The right ones will help you grow, expand and learn.
Q: Can you share some of your secrets for landing top-notch clients?
A: You have to sort through plenty of possibilities to find the right ones, but I’ve found great clients at Outsource.com, FreelanceWritingGigs.com and Craigslist. Sign up for the Morning Coffee daily e-newsletter at FreelanceWriting.com, too. And, definitely network, in person and online.
Q: Please explain the role of social media in finding clients. Did you ever use Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook to find and secure new jobs or clients?
A: I’m active on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, but I use them more to develop and deepen relationships. I have gotten jobs where I edit manuscripts through social media and I use social media to promote clients, but my personal accounts are more for conversations and relationship building.
The Right Rates
Q: How do you go about setting your rates? Do you have any special formulas or tips you could offer our readers?
A: I have a minimum rate that I no longer go below EXCEPT if a job will provide incredible visibility to my more creative writing or if it helps me to expand into an area of writing that intrigues me but for which I don’t have a solid resume yet.
Q: What advice would you give to someone just starting their freelance writing career if they want to build a successful freelance writing career?
A: Seriously consider the six keys of success I’ve shared and then follow your passion. Enjoy the ride! For me, writing is definitely the way I make my living but it’s also a way of life, a life where I can work from home, be creative, and meet and interact with incredible people. Work hard but don’t forget to lift up your head and treasure each day of life. If someone who is further along the way offers to help you, accept his or her offer! Then pass it along to someone else.
Thank you Kelly for taking time out of your busy schedule to give our readers a slice of your professional life and expertise!
If you would like to read more of Kelly’s articles here at Freelance Writing Riches, visit her articles below: