Writing first comes up on us in different ways, but I’ve been surprised to see how many of us write poetry early on in our lives, like Michael Cervin, who wrote and published a poem when he was just a teen. He’ll talk about that and how he finds success as a freelance writer.
Enjoy this interview.
How long have you been freelancing? How and why did you decide it’s what you wanted to do?
I have been freelancing since 2000, but frankly, it’s been long before than. My very first poem was published, and I was paid, when I was 14 years old. But going back even further, I still have school journals and stories from when I was in the second grade. Occasionally I look at these and it reminds me that telling stories has always been part of my DNA. Ultimately freelancing is ideal for me because I don’t want to take direction from others, I want to write about what’s most important to me, and I want money going into my own pocket, not a publisher. And I must say, I love what I do. I work very hard, but I have crafted the life I want.
Have you noticed the “feast or famine” world that people think about when they picture freelancing?
No. If things are slow it’s because I’m not aggressively pitching ideas. There are times when things do seem to pile on top of each other, and it’s usually when I’m leaving the country for a press trip. But freelance writing is not an easy endeavor. I work 365 days a year. I recall a Christmas day with family where I locked myself in a room for several hours because I had a massive deadline. I have created several consistent outlets that cover financial needs, then everything else is gravy on top of that. As a freelance writer I think it’s crucial to have some steady writing work, otherwise you stress over money and end up taking assignments you’d rather not do. It’s not just about money, but about respecting yourself and your work.
Many freelancers today work for clients and also supplement that with their own blogs and books. What’s your approach to maintaining a successful freelance career?
To do the things I truly care about. I rarely take any assignments and those I do are publications I value. Therefore the majority of my work is of my own making. I don’t see books or blogs as “supplements,” but as part of the whole. As a writer it’s all part of crafting my name as a brand and identifying myself an expert in various areas. And you need to adapt to the times: publishing is changing and you need to change with it. Many older writers I know don’t want to learn social media – mistake. Learn, adapt and take charge. You also need to define “success” for yourself. I do well financially, but success to me is also about getting respect from my industry, and being true to my beliefs. I have a poetry book, Generous Fiction. I have not made a dime from it (yet), but to me my book is successful because it’s exactly what I wanted to do and I am very proud of it.
In your opinion, what’s the best way to get new clients as a freelancer?
Be open to new things. I recall I was asked by the owner of a website, BottledWaterWeb.com, if I would consider writing for his site (and yes, it pays well) if I would write about the bottled water industry. I initially told him no. I was busy and didn’t think there was too much to writing about bottled water, though I do drink it. But I thought about the potential, and now six years later it’s steady income, I’ve become actively involved in the Berkeley Springs Water Tasting competition, I was in China for a water conference, I’m often quoted in regional and national media as a water authority, and I’m wrapping up my first book on water. I could never have imagined how it would turn out.
Second, don’t box yourself into a corner, think broadly as to where you can sell an article. Example: I write for a lot of the top wine magazines and one particular winery, with a dog theme, was hopeful I could write an article for the national wine press. I told them no, as I know the business and there was nothing unique I could go to editors with. But in thinking about it, I realized I wasn’t hamstrung by wine mags. I pitched the idea to a top dog magazine, sold the idea and wrote a much larger article than I could ever have done within the wine magazine world. Ideas are never limited.
Third, niche is gold. Niche markets can be very lucrative. Sure, your byline isn’t in a national magazine, but so what? I mentioned Bottled Water Web – very niche, but I have created many things from that. I also write for a website dedicated to artists who would exclusively with copper – very niche, but consistent money. Find a void and fill it.
Tell us what your day is like. How many hours do you work and do you have the flexibility that many freelancers crave?
I have tons of flexibility and that to me is one of the major selling points of freelancing. Mornings are most productive for me – and I think it’s crucial to define your best working time and organize your day around that. I aim to be at my desk about 6 AM. After a few hours, I’ll workout (run, cycle or power-walk), then it’s back to my desk until noon. As the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News-Press, I’m out to restaurants and lunch times are set aside for that. Then it’s back to work until around dinner time, where I make dinner for my wife. My wife works some evenings, so it’s usually back to the desk until 9 p.m. or so. Throughout the day I take breaks where I get outside and walk and stretch, play with the cats, and hang out on my deck.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about freelance writers?
That they are lazy and unmotivated. And frankly, many are. I’m quite successful but people still think I don’t do much in part because I cover food, wine and travel, so it looks like play to most people.
Do you have a favorite book about writing or small business that has helped you?
I’d like to say yes, but I find primary motivation comes from TV and radio interviews with successful people (writers or not), and gleaning from their stories what is helpful to me. I tend not to read a lot, in part because I’d rather write.
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start freelancing today?
1) Have a plan. Without a roadmap, even the most talented writers won’t get anywhere. Know what you want to accomplish and set out specific, detailed steps to get there. It’s a myth that if you’re good you will rise to the top like the proverbial cream. Freelancing is a lonely profession, and it takes immense focus and a belief in yourself, and you must promote your work vigorously. With all of your projects, compromise as little as possible. Without integrity your writing won’t really matter.
2) Get involved with others in the industry. I have become actively involved with the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association which includes press trips. I get to meet other writers, share advice and stories and build relationships. Don’t be a loner! And give back in some way – I share lots of advice with writers who contact me, and I speak at writers groups about my experiences.
3) Learn the art of the pitch. Most freelance writers fail because they do not understand how to correctly pitch a magazine or publisher. Concise, cleaver pitches to the point and addressed to the right editor which fits their needs is what it’s all about.
4) Build long-term relationships with your editors. I write consistently for multiple publications covering diverse subject matter because I do not miss deadlines, I over-deliver and I respond promptly. Everyone I work with knows this; therefore I have earned their trust. I’m a go-to person in their eyes and if an editor needs something done right and done fast they contact me first.
5) Treat yourself as a business. You are. Have a website, blog, business cards (carry them with you always, and I mean always), and talk and act like you’re a writer, not a wannabe. No one respects people who are full of self-doubt.
Anything you’d like to add?
Use every tool available to you to promote your work –this includes all forms of social media (some work better than others and LinkdIn is the most misunderstood but one of the most powerful tools), radio (underused) and anything that keeps your name out there. The writing world has become stunningly congested so you need to make sure everyone knows who you are. A word about Facebook – for me it’s not a “look at me at Disneyland with my drunk friends” function, but primarily a business tool where I share articles, links to speaking engagements, my charity work, promote my books (and other writer friends) and the like. Many writers do not act professionally on social media and I think that’s a mistake.
Where can we find you online?
My general website is www.MichaelCervin.com. From there you can find my three blogs, my books, and a few links to articles. I use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as my primary social media tools.