Mel Lee-Smith On The Balancing Act Of Writing And Mental Health

Freelancing is an industry of perspectives. The story of every freelancer is unique and each person brings something new to the conversation. Hearing these unique stories and sharing the wisdom and philosophy of freelance creativity is a big part of Stoic Athenaeum and it was wonderful to speak to Mel Lee-Smith about her experiences.

A freelance copywriter, Mel speaks openly about her battles with mental health, her approach to freelance writing and why output doesn’t determine your worth as a person. 

Appreciate you taking the time to chat Mel. It’d be great to know what writing means as a genre to you and If the meaning of it has evolved over time based on your personal experiences.

No problem! Thanks so much for having me.

Wow, what a question to kick things off! I suppose writing, for me, is a balancing act. An exercise in dialectics — dark and light, good and bad. Infusing evocative prose with plots and characters inspired by real events and people.

This perspective came with adulthood. As a young girl, I conjured up stories out of thin air. I created larger-than-life characters for larger-than-life stories. My imagination was my escape.

As I grew older, I became more interested in real life, particularly the stories my family passed down to me. As I write in my novel-in-progress, Escape Artist, “I’ve tried to build fictional worlds and craft characters purely from imagination, but real life won’t quit calling me.”

Humans are the only species that can invent something from nothing. (For more on that, see the concept of “imagined realities”.) What happens when we combine imagination with reality? What kind of magic can we create on the page? That’s what I’m most interested in.

You’ve stated that some of your earliest experiences with books were reading Harry Potter and A Series Of Unfortunate Events (Those were my jam too!) How did books of this genre help to inspire your writing from a young age and do you feel fiction can help with honing writing craft?

I’d argue that reading fiction is essential for honing your craft, no matter where you’re starting or what genre you’re working in. It gives you the freedom and confidence to experiment, which I think every writer needs.

My favourite thing about both series is they were never afraid to dream big and push the boundaries of what was realistic or feasible. That translated into my childhood and adolescent work.

If Harry could fly around on a broomstick or Violet Baudelaire could invent a grappling hook out of a metal rod and some curtains, I could make my characters do or be anything I wanted.

This magic has, tragically, waned with time. As an adult who largely works in fictionalised biography, I’m always on the lookout for plot points that aren’t 100% realistic. But when I catch myself fretting over it, I remind myself that readers expect to suspend their disbelief up to a point — that’s a big part of what makes good stories so engrossing.

What was the moment that made you decide to become a freelance writer?

I wouldn’t say there was a specific moment — I knew from a young age that I wanted to write for a living. I didn’t have an inkling how I’d find success or what type of writing I wanted to do. But I stuck with it and kept the faith.

Throughout high school and college, I worked as a waitress. My pay ranged from $2.13 to $4.00 an hour, plus tips, which were abysmal where I lived. Some nights, I’d walk out with $5 in my pocket, dog tired and stressed up to my eyeballs about how I was going to pay my bills.

I didn’t even know freelancing was an option until the summer of 2016, when I was working on my postgraduate dissertation. I’d just quit another soul-sucking waitress gig and was desperate to find work in my field.

One day, I saw a tweet from someone about freelancing, and I thought, “Oh, I’d love to do that!” So I reached out to them, and they pointed me to Upwork. I applied for an account, got accepted, and started applying to jobs like crazy.

I had NO clue what I was doing, so I ended up accepting a gig that paid $3 per 750-word article. At first, I was just happy to get paid to write. But I quickly learned that wasn’t sustainable. I knew I deserved better, so I continued to work my way up the freelance ladder. And that’s a very long story short for you!

What are your best practices for pricing your writing services and what techniques have you used to show the value of your writing to clients?

Pricing is something I still haven’t quite figured out. When I see freelancers charging $100+ an hour, I just balk. My current hourly rate is $30, which is very low for someone with my experience, qualifications, and skills. But I grew up below the poverty line, so my view on money is different from most freelancers’.

As long as I make enough money to pay my bills, stay out of debt, maintain a nest egg for a rainy day, and have some fun now and again, I’m happy.

As for showing my value, I’d like to think my work speaks for me. But one of my favourite ways to prove my worth is to stay on the lookout for gaps that need filling. I’m not afraid to voice any ideas or suggestions I think will benefit the client.

Currently you work as the managing editor for Wag!. What attracted you to this role and do you find it easy to balance with other freelance projects?

For context, my role with Wag! started as a freelance writing gig with a startup that was acquired by Wag! in 2017. When that acquisition happened, I was promoted to editor.

What attracted me to the original writing role was that I’d get paid to write about dogs and cats. It was one of my first freelance gigs, and I’m so glad I found it because I’ve gained so much experience and opportunity from it.

While Wag! is my main client, the job is easy to balance with smaller freelance gigs. I’ve been there so long I’ve developed a sixth sense, so to speak, for the content and processes, which makes me quick and efficient.

What does good content look like to you in an age where content is king?

I firmly believe all good content starts with a good story. Find the story, and the rest will fall into place. From there, it’s just a matter of substance and mechanics.

From a technical perspective, good content is cohesive, visually appealing, accessible for people with disabilities, and free of errors.

From an artistic perspective, good content is fresh and deep. It demonstrates an understanding of its target audience. It’s not a cobbled-together, regurgitated version of the top 5 search results for a specific keyword. It’s meatier than similar articles without being verbose. And it doesn’t insult the reader by detailing things they already know.

That last point is a BIG pet peeve of mine. A few months back, I searched how to install Google Tag Manager on WordPress. All the articles had headings like, “What is Google Tag Manager?” or “What is WordPress?”

I wanted to scream. I KNOW what those are. But so many companies prioritise SEO over reader experience. Guess what? Bounce rate and dwell time affect SEO, too! 

To provide a quick and painless solution to your readers’ problems, ask yourself what they already know before you start writing.

You’ve said your writing philosophy is that your output doesn’t determine your worth as a person. What inspired this philosophy?

Honestly? Mental illness. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at 18. Let’s just say I move a little slower than some people, so a lot of writing advice on establishing a writing routine just doesn’t jive with me. And I suspect much of it is written by people who don’t live with a mental illness or physical disability.

Some of it is so gimmicky and dogmatic, too. “Discover the 5-step framework to writing a bestseller in 30 days!” or “There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just sit down and write!” Pfft. I call BS.

Showing up every day is impossible for some people. Hustle-culture die-hards would have you believe otherwise, of course. That perspective exhausts me, and I find it odd that it’s infiltrated creative professions, especially since the “starving artist” trope is still alive and well.

Who are some authors and marketers that have helped you become better at what you do?

Oh goodness, where to start? I suppose with Joseph Williams and Gregory Colcomb, the authors of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. This was my technical writing textbook, and it remains the most valuable manual on writing I’ve ever read.

Cal Newport, Ann Handley, and Graham Allcott taught me how to work deeply and attentively, create valuable content, and navigate the sweet spot between “boss” and “worker” modes. Thich Nhat Hanh and Yuval Harari are honorable mentions.

As for marketers, I’ve learned a ton from Sophie Michals, Yasmin Yarwood, and Sarah Colley on LinkedIn. And from my former colleague, Phil Kuehnen. I’m forgetting a ton of people, but if I continue this list, we’ll be here all day!

What’s your best advice to any creative who’s considering going freelance?

I have 3 pieces of advice, and I’ll start with the most important: Take all advice with a grain of salt. Even mine! It’s called freelancing for a reason: because you’re free to do whatever you want. If something doesn’t jive with you, don’t feel pressured to abide by it because so-and-so on LinkedIn said it’s the only way to be a successful freelancer.

On that note, don’t believe all those “success stories” you see online about making $10k in your first month. I suspect most income reports are exaggerated at best and totally fake at worst. This is not a get-rich-quick profession. If you want to achieve those kinds of results, prepare to invest good time, money, and effort into your craft.

If you want to stand out, invest in deep learning. Rhetoric, linguistics, and technical writing are invaluable skills that belong in every writer’s arsenal. But too few writers take the time to learn and apply them. If you’re willing to do that, you’ve already got a big advantage.

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