Content Crafters is an interview series where we de-construct the tools, tips, and tactics that top bloggers use to get so much work done. you’ll walk away in mere minutes with actionable takeaways you can try out right away. Let’s dive in!
Mel Hattie is an East Coast-based creative, tea sommelier, and content consultant with extensive experience in the travel and hospitality industry.
Mel works with clients as a freelance wordsmith, strategist, and photographer, crafting content strategies and editorial calendars from the ground up.
In addition to running her blog, Mel Had Tea, Mel works as a digital content specialist, creating content strategies for nationally renowned brands. She currently works in-house at Arrivals + Departures, working with brands such as NSCC, SkipTheDishes, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and many more.
As a blogger, she’s worked with brands such as Expedia, GoOverseas, and Shoppers Drug Mart. Her journalism and photography work has been published in Roads & Kingdoms, the CBC, The Coast, and Photographers Without Borders.
How did you get into blogging and writing? What’s your origin story?
I started out blogging on Tumblr!
It was the spring of 2012 and I was in Japan doing a semester abroad during my undergraduate degree. I started posting photos and stories of things that made me laugh abroad and I wanted to share with people back home. That was when I realized the power of online community, and what just putting yourself out there and talking about things you care about can do.
A few years after I made it back from Japan I was still blogging, but the focus had turned more to tea, travel, and writing. In 2015 I moved everything to WordPress, bought MelHadTea.com and the rest is history.
Do you think it’s important that freelance writers pick a specific niche? If so, what are the main benefits of doing so?
As a freelance writer, if you plan on making your living doing this work it will make your professional and financial life a lot less painful if you pick a niche, and niche down hard.
Niche expertise and specialty mean you can command a higher fee because you actually know what you’re talking about and can speak with an authority that writers hopscotching from one topic to another don’t have.
Your brain will also feel a lot more focused and happy to not be running around everywhere.
Once you have your niche, hold it and build it like it’s your goddamned fortress. Because it is. Every article you write, every interview you do, every bit of research you spend time on is like a brick in your niche castle.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to filling my moat with alligators.
How did you get into the tea and travel niches?
I’ve had the great privilege to pursue a lot of travel opportunities in my life and make it a priority for me. None of these things happen by accident, right?
I’ve always loved travel literature and the act of travelling itself. So I made a point of knowing a lot about travel so that I could write in a way that serves others who are interested in doing it too.
As for tea, that one’s more of a long-time love affair that evolved over time.
When I get into something, I get into it in a big way.
Tea has been a constant in my travels, whether I’m talking to a tea shop owner in Sarajevo about what it’s like starting a business after the Balkan war, or making a point to live and work on a tea farm in Japan to see what it’s really like, or attempting to do a two-week road trip in one of the world’s most expensive countries is all research and experience that helps build that castle I mentioned above.
How do you describe the main differences between working in-house for a business and freelancing full-time?
When you’re working in-house, you have perceived security, maybe some cushy benefits (maybe not), and a steady, constant paycheque. Working in-house can be great for budgeting with a reliable income source, but there are big caveats: you don’t always get to do the work you want to do, your time is not your own (it’s a pet peeve of mine to have to ‘ask’ to go on vacation).
On the other hand, working in-house and with a bigger team means you might get to work on bigger opportunities you couldn’t have had as a freelancer. And having other creative types around to bounce ideas off is a huge benefit. On the other hand, your monthly salary remains the same whether you create $25k or $2k worth of value for your agency or company that month, which can be frustrating.
Working for yourself, there is no net. You need to make money or you won’t get paid.
Simple. As. That.
It’s very motivating. And there are the big-win months where you might be raking in all the money, and there are the famine months where you better have put something aside, because all of a sudden your clients will be paying their bills late, or a project will fall through, or your clients will lose funding. Those months can suck.
It’s really good to have a ‘float’ of money in your business account at all times. Depending on your expenses, this might be $5k, it might be $50k. But always have enough that you know if you didn’t get paid for a few months you’ll be able to ‘float’ on by, literally.
What’s the most effective way(s) a freelance writer can build a portfolio of clients that they enjoy working with?
The number-one best thing you can do to attract your ideal clients to you and show them you can write is to start blogging. Seriously. I wish I had started blogging years before.
Also: don’t do free work. If you’re going to work for free for anyone, do it for yourself.
Get on your blog and start figuring out SEO. Learn how to market and share your articles. Attention is money. Advertise for the exact kind of people you want to be working with.
If you know who you want to have as a client, reach out to them! Or go to conferences where you know they’ll be so you can introduce yourself. Get out there! I sound like a Mum, but seriously — get out there and make some friends! Good networking is just finding people with common interests that you like and want to hang out with and do business with.
What are some common mistakes freelancers make when building the “business” side of things (so operations, client acquisition, client management, etc. – all the non-writing stuff)?
The number one mistake I see freelancers in every niche make is not knowing their money stuff.
Know what your expenses are. Know how much you need to make to pay all your bills comfortably. Make a budget and stick to it with pride. Know what type of fee you should command in your market. Live within your means. Especially as a writer, you need to learn how to do all of this.
It is a powerful thing to know how much money you actually need in this world for your needs to be met. Because you’re trading either money or time, right? If you need money you trade time working in order to get it. It amazes me how many people don’t know their numbers. It gives you power.
Having this priceless information allows you to do things like walk away from that crappy project offer because you know you don’t need that money, or that it will not be worth your time. This lets you focus on work that brings you closer to your higher goals.
On the same page, knowing you need to fill (for example) 8 article slots this month, or take 5 retainers on projects this month to meet your financial goals gives you something very real to work towards, versus running around anxious and blind and just praying there’s enough cash in your account to cover your bills this month.
What’s a strong skill or lesson from your journalism education that sticks with you today? How about from your English and Media undergrad?
The best advice I ever got about writing was from a former CBC Radio Journalist who taught me at the University of King’s College. Other than impressing the importance of good verbs over cheap adjectives, he told me:
“Write as if you’re writing to someone you know. It could be a friend, a family member—someone you know would be interested in what you have to say and who you enjoy telling it to.”
In the same breath, he said this muse should never be a lover because you’re bound to get angry with them at some point and then all your writing would go in the toilet along with your heart. So, wise words—please heed.
Is there an aspect of your personality or your background experience you attribute to your ability to write well and succeed as a writer?
I read a lot.
Anyone who wants to be a good writer needs to be a good reader. Read often, read across genres, continents, gender barriers, economic barriers. Read everything. Read important things, read trash, read it all.
From all this, you can take away the kind of writing you enjoy and want to create more of in the world, and then measure it up to your actual writing (which is sometimes painful but always truthful).
Biggest pet peeve in content you see published online?
My biggest pet peeve in online content these days is cheap, repetitive articles, things obviously written as SEO-bait for Google, content farms, meaningless text. It’s like junk food, right? You can eat a good meal or you can eat chips all day.
What would you do if you didn’t work in content/writing?
Maybe a tour guide.
In moderation, I genuinely like people and when I worked on the tea farm in Japan I’d guide tours of foreigners through the tea fields in this rural Japanese town and teach them all about cultivation.
Then we’d eat lunch in a local restaurant and I’d take them back to the tea room and talk more about the science and ceremony of brewing tea.
Hosting and guiding is kind of like writing in that you’re serving an audience and providing all the same information, but in person, with energy. Being a good guide and presenter also made me a better writer.
On that note, I recommend drama or improv classes for any aspiring writer. Learning how to talk to people and communicate in person is invaluable. Also, speaking your writing out loud can help you figure out if it’s good or not. If it flows, it’s good. If you can’t even get through a paragraph, well… that’s what rewrites are for.
What inspires you? What kind of writing, media, personalities do you follow, and where do you get your ideas?
I’m inspired by writers who don’t take themselves too seriously, who work hard, write well, are generous with their advice, and seem like decent people.
In no particular order, some writers I always find inspiring are:
Stephen King, Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Amy Tan, Joan Didion, Anthony Bourdain, Rupi Kaur, J.K. Rowling, Rainbow Rowell, and many more.
Gimme three tips to improve my writing? Or rather, tips that anyone can use to become a better writer
- Learn to edit. Editing is part of writing. Writing without editing is like making cake batter but not putting it in the oven.
- Write clean. Cut out anything that doesn’t serve a purpose.
- Read more.