Saturday, September 12, 2015

Pneumonia, Marie Callender's Pot Pies, Micheal Corleone -- and Why Any of This Matters to Your Freelance Marketing Approach

For the past 2+ weeks, I've been sick with pneumonia, and not the "walking" kind. This is the full-force, 104-temperature-in-the-dead-of-night, rag-doll-weakness, feels-like-a-concrete-slab-is-sitting-on-my-chest-suffocating-me, so-dizzy-that-I-dive-to-the-floor-where-my-dog-rushes-at-me-and-puts-his-nose-on-my-nose kind of pneumonia.

And that has nothing to do with freelance writing ... except that this unexpected battle with illness brought along an incident with my mother ... which, in turn, triggered a spiderweb of thought about marketing my writing business.

But let's dial back a couple of days, to when my mother mercifully drove to my house to do some grocery shopping for me. (I haven't been behind the wheel of a car since my doctor's appointment two weeks ago.)

She magically produced a pen and paper and commanded, "Tell me what you want." (If you've ever watched, "The Gilmore Girls," my mother is the epitome of Emily Gilmore, so just envision Emily Gilmore sitting on the edge of your bed while you hack up half of a lung.)

I went through the basics -- dog food, popcorn for my kid's nightly snacks, orange juice, etc. And then I said, "But I'll tell you what I'm really craving." She looked up from the paper. "I would like a Marie Callender's Chicken Pot Pie, the kind with mushrooms and broccoli."

She didn't write that down. Then in her all-knowing Emily Gilmore voice she said, "I don't see why you'd want Marie Callender's. Wouldn't you rather have Swanson's? Or even the generic Kroger brand?"

"No. But thank you. I would like Marie Callender's."

She stared at me. 

"Write that down."

"Why? Why would you want Marie Callender's, over all of these other chicken pot pies?"

"Why not?"

(cue the theme song from "Gilmore Girls" .... "If you are all alone ... feeling like your mother is crazy...." wait, wrong words, but those should be the lyrics ...)

She put her pencil down. "Because Marie Callender's gravy is thick! It's not nearly as good as Swanson's. And are you sure you want the one with mushrooms? What if I can't find the one with mushrooms? Are carrots and peas acceptable?"

"Yes, Mom, I want Marie Callender's. I like the thick gravy. And I like mushrooms. But if you can't find the one with the mushrooms, carrots and peas are great. Thank you."

She scrunched her nose as if I had just ordered her to buy beets, sardines and liver, and we proceeded with the shopping list.

After she left for the grocery store, I churned about this -- not about my mother pushing back about the pot pies (we have more of these conversations than I can count, and after a while, they're just static noise). 

No -- I thought to myself, "Why did I actually insist on the Marie Callender's brand?"

Because, truth be told, there really wasn't much of a difference between the chicken pot pie brands. In fact, she probably was right. The Swanson's is a good pot pie, and even the Kroger generic brand is pretty decent. There was nothing extra special about the Marie Callender's brand, except for the mushrooms (which I like a lot). But when all was said and done, I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn't actually prefer the taste of one pot pie over the others.

And then in a flash, probably a nano-second, it all clicked together:

I wasn't attached to the Marie Callender's chicken pot pie brand because it was a culinary masterpiece.

I was attached to it because of a memory.

Suddenly, I was back in time at age 23, in 1989, in a little hole-in-the-wall grungy Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I was a cub reporter for a very tiny newspaper (now defunct) called The Coatesville Record. And I had been assigned to do a feature story about a spaghetti fundraising dinner that the World War 2 veterans were holding. (Yes, in those days, there were still World War 2 veterans, who were in their 70s and 80s). 

I was sitting at a long table, surrounded on either elbow and across the table by old guys, all of whom were joking and laughing and making me feel like I'd just discovered a cadre of surrogate Italian grandpas. (Maybe they weren't looking at me like that, but that's how I felt at the time.) I conjured the scene in "The Godfather," where Michael Corleone is watching Clemenza stirring the sauce. Clemenza imparts wisdom about the tomatoes. My group of "Clemenzas" were all very entertaining. I felt warm and happy. Safe. They had thoroughly charmed me like a group of pied pipers.

I had a plate of noodles in front of me, when one of the veterans came up behind me and said, "Would you like some gravy on that?"

"Gravy?" I blanched, thinking he was about to dump thick roast beef gravy that you would normally put on mashed potatoes on top of my spaghetti.

The veteran across the table laughed. "That's what old Italian guys call the sauce," he explained. "We call it, 'gravy.'"

"Oh!" I smiled at the man behind my shoulder, who looked like he was about to drop a steaming vat of tomato sauce all over the floor. "Yes, please. I would like some gravy."

He heaped the sauce and a couple of giant meatballs on my plate.

The aroma, the steam, the robust laughter, the camaraderie, the embellished stories, the food that warmed me to the bones as snowflakes fluttered against a window pane, the cigar smoke, the strong handshakes, the direct eye contact -- all of those mosaic pieces that created a backdrop for my story -- it was a blissful memory.

It all came rushing back to me, 27 years later, in a bed where I had languished for two weeks -- that Italian dinner with those World War 2 veterans.

And what did it have to do with Marie Callender's chicken pot pies?

Just this:

I then fast forwarded to about 10 years later. I was living in a different part of Pennsylvania, a single career girl working for The Associated Press, but this memory was in a grocery store. I had pulled in there after a 10-hour day covering politics in the state Capitol, scavenging for a quick frozen food meal to take home and eat on my couch next to my cat. (I know, pathetic.)

That's when I saw the Marie Callender's BOX in the freezer case.

I didn't know anything about Marie Callender. I had no idea who she was (I still don't). But I saw what looked like a pencil drawing of an elderly woman in the top left-hand corner. I saw the name -- Marie Callender. I saw the meal -- a spaghetti dinner, with thick red sauce and big meatballs. My mind clicked: "Italian grandmother. Italian name. Italian cook. Italian meal."

And then my mind went one step further: "Oh. I remember those sweet old guys at the VFW in Downingtown, Pennsylvania! That was such a fun story. Those guys were so amazing!"

I flung open the freezer case and bought not one meal, but eight, to last me through the week of late-night story coverage.

Truth be told, the Marie Callender's meals were not much better than any other freezer meal. But every time I grabbed one of those BOXES, I flashed back to Downingtown, either knowingly or unknowingly, and the way I felt on that day, in that moment, surrounded by those old Italian World War 2 veterans.

As I waited for Emily Gilmore to bring back my Marie Callender's chicken pot pie with mushrooms and broccoli, I realized something else, too:

Marketing my writing services has much less to do with my marketing approach and more to do with the feelings that my editors associate with ME when they see my name, see my photo, see my blog, see my website, see my Twitter account, see my LinkedIn profile, see an email from me or see my name flash up on their cell phone's caller ID. 

How do I make my editors feel?

Do they associate me with a pleasant person? A writer who meets deadlines? A person of integrity who won't fudge details or quotes? A writer whose copy is consistently clean and needs few edits? A person who enthusiastically accepts work without complaining about tight schedules or asking for more time? 

And for those who don't know me yet ... Of course I can't control their own perceptions and how those might affect their initial interactions with me. But I can control my professionalism right out of the gate. How does my professional website look? How many story ideas do I submit when they ask me for one? (I try to average a minimum of 12.) Am I courteous, well-spoken, polite? Do I convey confidence and assurance that if they place trust in me, I will turn in a product that will boost their readership?

The questions are endless, but they are as necessary as asking, "Why do I always go to that particular chicken pot pie, without fail? Why do I always choose that movie theater across town, when another one is closer to my house? Why do I take my dog to that veterinarian instead of the one who I used for five years?"

When you get right down to it, the answer will come down to a feeling that you associate with that person, product or service.

When Emily Gilmore showed up, she had the Marie Callender's chicken pot pie with carrots and peas. (I guess the mushrooms were too much for her to stomach, even though she wasn't the one to be eating it.) 

But as I dug into that steaming hunk of pie crust, chicken chunks -- and that thick gravy -- I thought, "This reminds me of those old Italian guys in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, when I was 23 years old, feeling like Michael Corleone listening to Clemenza's wisdom about the perfect tomato sauce."

And I hope my editors feel the same way about me when my name flashes in front of their eyes.


Monday, March 2, 2015

The Art of the Story Lead

Occasionally I am honored to receive questions from people who are starting out in freelancing and ask me for mentoring advice. A lot of experienced freelancers charge money to impart their "wisdom," but I'm of the mind that writers need all of the help they can get in such a competitive job market. So when someone reaches out with a few questions, I'm more than happy to share what I know, to the best that I know it.

Recently I heard from Tanya Kinney, a new freelancer in Texas. She had some questions about story leads, and I thought this would make a great primer and blog entry. I'd like to start doing blog entries like these regularly, so if you also are trying to make a go of freelancing and don't want to spend oodles of money asking someone for guidance, just email me! This give-and-take is good for my soul, and writing these blog entries also fuels me for the bill-paying writing that I do daily. I can be reached at

Here are Tanya's questions about the story lead.

 What is a lead? 

Your lead is the most important part of your story, because it will determine whether people keep reading. Simply put, it's your first sentence or first paragraph -- your introduction. But it's much more complex than just that, because it's the manner in which you lead the reader into the reason for the article. 

Think of it this way: Something amazing happens to you, and you're about to meet your best friend for coffee. You sit down with your steaming brew, and look at him or her across the table. And what are the first words you say about this personal news? 

That's your lead.

That's the spirit you want to carry into every single article that you write.

Q: How does a story suffer without a proper lead? 

People won't read it. My only description is what happens to me in a book store. I wander in and browse for a new book, but I'm not sure what type of book I'm in the mood to buy. I pick up one book after another, and you know what I do? I read the first sentence in each book. Maybe I'll glance at the title and the jacket to decide whether to open the book in the first place. But my decision on whether to buy? It all comes down to that first sentence. If the writer doesn't hook me immediately, then I know I won't find the rest of the book interesting. It's like meeting someone for a blind date. You know almost immediately if you want to keep pursuing things, don't you? Your story lead is your chance to lull the reader into your story, so seduce the reader. Give the reader a reason to stay with you.

A great lead is great foreplay.

Which leads us into our next question ...

Q: What constitutes a good lead and what are the benefits of a good lead?

I worked for The Associated Press for five years of my life, so my philosophy about good leads is really grounded in what I learned during my time there. So keep that in mind.

A good lead, in my view, is a sentence or paragraph that will entice the reader to keep reading, told in as few words as possible. The tighter the sentences, the better the lead. The more punch you can pack into a sentence, the better the lead. What do I mean by, "punch?" Just simply that you want to give the reader an overview of the information that will be covered in the story, but you weave it into prose that will hook them. 


Q: How many different types of leads are there? 

In basic college journalism school classes, you'll learn that each story should include answers to the questions: Who? When? What? Why? Where? How? 

When I worked in daily newspapers and for the AP wire service, we had what we called "first-day leads" and "second-day leads." Two of the newspapers for whom I worked were afternoon newspapers. Our competitors were morning papers. What that meant was that every lead we wrote was a second-day lead. We knew the competitors would be telling the news first, and we were getting a second crack at it, because our newspapers were delivered later in the day. Our role, therefore, was to advance the story. We still had the basic news in the lead, but we took it an extra step, by giving the "how" and the "why" behind the story, rather than just the "who," "when," "what" and "how." I firmly believe that this approach helped me as a journalist to crystallize my thoughts on every story I wrote going forward. 

In the AP, I learned to write both first-day leads and second-day leads, as well as broadcast snippets for radio and television. But because I'd honed my skill at the afternoon papers for second-day leads, the first-day leads came very quickly to me.They were so easy to write that they were like breathing. 

Now we have a new era of the Internet, where news is immediate. So if you want to learn to write a great lead, take those stories you see on the Internet and practice making them second-day leads. Think about the "how" and the "why" behind each of those stories. Read the articles in their entirety. And then practice writing new leads that introduce each of those stories, with the "how" and the "why" driving the thoughts. 

The other type of lead, of course, is the magazine lead, which is my focus nowadays. You can have so much more fun with these. Often I use anecdotal leads to get into my stories, because people love hearing about the first-hand accounts of other people. But you can also get into telling a story by describing an event or a scenario that led to the issue about which you are writing. 

Q: What type of lead do you find yourself using regularly?

As I said earlier, now that I'm in magazines, anecdotal leads -- those that delve into people's lives and people's thoughts -- are my go-to leads. I just find that they speak to the heart more effectively than anything else and will guarantee that a reader will stay with me. 

Q: Can you share examples of a good lead and provide why they make for a good lead?

Rather than giving you examples of good leads, what I would like to suggest is that you find a writer who you admire. Then study that writer's leads and emulate that writer. 

In my case, when I was 23 years old, an editor advised me to start reading the work of David Simon, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun. I had just landed a job covering the courthouse in Cecil County, Maryland, for a 150-year-old newspaper called, "The Cecil Whig." We only had 15,000 readers per day at the time.

Simon was the police reporter at The Sun. So every day before work, I'd hit a convenience store and pick up The Sun and look for his stories. I studied his story leads and ingested them like fine French cuisine. I was starving for an example of a great writer, and Simon was it. I'd clip his leads and put them on my refrigerator and study them at home every time I opened the fridge door.

Personally, I don't think I will ever attain the writing greatness of David Simon. I see him as the Michelangelo of journalism -- a rarity for his gift in storytelling and prose. 

If you want some good examples, visit his Web site and check out his story leads at this link:

If he's not your style, that's fine. Everybody is different, and writers are like wine -- everyone has a unique taste palette. The point is to pick up publications that you admire (two magazines I admire greatly are The New Yorker and Vanity Fair). Then study their leads. You'll be able to pick up the rhythm and pace, the staccato of the words, the beat that matches your own heart's beat.

I hope these little tips help! 

Happy writing, and if more questions are out there, be sure to email me with them.


Heidi Lynn Russell

Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Paid Fairly as a Freelancer

Now we come to the pink elephant in the room for many writers and freelancers:


People ask me frequently, "How much do you charge? How do you know how much to charge? Would you take work from someone who only provides a byline and no pay? Would you take work from someone whose 'payment' is copies of the magazine where my article appears?"

Before we dive in, if you want to skip past all of my rhetoric to the bottom line, the bottom line is this:

Join the National Writers' Union, and you'll get great guidance on the fair amount of money to charge, as well as the heads-up on any unscrupulous publisher, editor, publication or Web site of which to steer clear. The NWU's dues are on a sliding scale, depending on your tax returns as a writer from the previous year. So if you're new to this game, you're looking at a nominal fee for their help, and if you're not new to this game, let me assure you that they're worth every red cent.

Now if you want my personal take (why I charge what I charge, and why I think it's important to charge for your work) ... keep reading.

Let's start with the obvious ... the question of publications that are "doing you a favor" by "giving you a byline" in their publication "with thousands of readers" and "the recognition you need for your resume" and "the public spotlight on your name."

Payment of a "byline," or payment by sending you copies of the magazine in which your article is printed is not payment. It's slave labor. And if you work for one of these whorehouses, you are selling the rest of us down the river (those of us who are professional writers and depend on our craft to pay the bills). If you'd like a list of these places to avoid, just join NWU.

The same goes for publications that offer you any less than 30 cents per word for your work.

Here's why:

Do you realize that not everyone can put two words together on paper? Do you realize that most people make so many grammatical errors, that even my 6th grader can eyeball them on the Internet? I had one client who sent me her "notes" for ghost writing under her name, and they were nothing but scattered thoughts ... usually incomplete sentences .... and always riddled with grammatical errors .... FROM HER CELL PHONE, sometimes in a short text. This person could not even find time to sit down at a computer and write an email. I had to assemble her thoughts by talking to her on the phone, because there were no "notes" to be had with which to construct her book.

Do you also realize that most people diminish your value as a writer by thinking they can do what you can do? They assume that they can pay you a pittance, because you really aren't worth that much. You will be satisfied with your "name in lights," as it were. And they think they can pull off what you can pull off. But because they "don't have the time," they ask you to do their work for them. The truth is that they have no idea how to put together meaningful prose that will interest a wide readership.

OK, still not convinced? Let's take a couple of examples from other professions. I'm not claiming that my work is as important as these people's work, but you'll see where I'm going. Just stick with me.


You wake up with a high fever, shortness of breath and a gouging pain in your right side that's so bad that you start praying for death. You pass out and wake up again, and now you're on the floor next to your bed, and your dog is standing over you licking your face.

So now. Choose one. You:

1. Call your best friend on the phone and ask them what they think it is.

2. Try to solve the problem by swigging down some Mylanta and Tylenol.

3. Call 911 and get yourself to the nearest hospital.

I'm wagering it's number 3. You're going to go to the place that has the people who have been trained to solve the problem. You want a surgeon, not a physician's assistant, and not even a registered nurse. You're not going to gamble your life with someone who says they've been reading up on and think that you might have the latest flu bug, are you?

Let's take another situation.


You're falsely accused of a serious crime and are looking at prison time, maybe more than a couple of decades. Choose one. You:

1. Call your cousin who is a paralegal and ask him if he thinks this is something you can beat with a public defender.

2. Represent yourself.

3. Cash out your retirement accounts to hire the best lawyer you can afford.

My guess is .... #3.

Now let's look at the lowly writer. Heck, let's just use me for an example. And this situation happens to me all of the time ... An editor will call and say, "Can you do a last-minute assignment? I just had somebody drop out." (Translation: "I hired somebody who had less experience than you do so that I wouldn't have to pay more than 50 cents a word, and they flaked out, and now I have space to fill in my magazine. Oh. And my deadline was yesterday.")

Why do they call me? At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, let's run through the reasons:

1. They know I can turn around accurate copy, and I can do it quickly. I have 25 years of experience under my belt, 12 of which were in the mainstream newsrooms, and five of which were with The Associated Press. I am accustomed to dealing with deadlines that were "five minutes ago." I have a wide network of news sources and a wider network of PR people who can connect me with sources. I can do the reporting on a story within 1 day and, if I have to, write it that same day. (That's rare now that I no longer work for daily publications, but it's definitely a skill in my toolbox.)

2. They know I have experience unearthing unusual details to give the story edginess. I know how to ask questions. I know how to interview people to get to the heart of the issue. I know how to find the hard-to-uncover truths, because, again, I have experience.

3. They know my copy will be clean. Unless we have a miscommunication about the editor's desired angle, there is a rarely a time when I have to do any rewrites. Editors can take my raw copy and pretty much print it, verbatim. Fact checks come back clean, and if there are discrepancies, it's because the source usually has second thoughts about their quote once they see it in black and white.

4. They know I'm honest. I don't make things up. I don't take people out of context. I don't rush a job. I don't turn in substandard copy to make a quick buck. I am available day and night, for any question, any edit.

5. They know that if I have an emergency, I'll still get the work done. Remember the story earlier about waking up with a gouging pain in your right side? OK, well that happened to me in September 2013, and I had to have emergency surgery. AND, I had a story that was due in four days. I spent the day at the hospital, went under the knife and was released at 11:30 p.m. The next morning, I called my editors and explained what had happened. They told me I could have extra time to finish the story. But you know what I did? I rested for 24 hours, and then the NEXT morning, I wrote that sucker from bed while my mother brought me mugs of tea and chicken soup.

Sorry if I sound like a street-wise teenager, but I don't mess around when it comes to my deadlines. And the editors know that.

Now I don't have any qualms charging what I charge. I am very confident in my work, and I am not shy about letting a client go if that client 1) acts like my work is substandard (because it isn't) and 2) acts like I'm not worth what they're paying me and 3) gives me all kinds of reasons why their pay scale is so low.

If you are working for someone who is short-changing you on payment, they are probably treating you very badly. Anyone for whom I ever worked who paid me on the low side of the scale ALSO was very manipulative, very unappreciative, very demanding, very difficult to please, very full of their own opinion of their own ability to "write."

Conversely, people who have paid me well treat me well and love my work.

It's not worth it for you to spend time with the bloodsuckers. Cut yourself a break and cut them loose. Work for people who will pay you what you're worth and treat you with the professionalism that you deserve.

Now what if you're really a "physician's assistant" and not a "surgeon?" What I mean is, what if you're fresh out of school, jumping into writing from another profession, etc.?

You still have the right to expect fair payment for your work.

Do a personal assessment. How much would you pay you?

How much do you really think you bring to the table? Get a number in your head and then inflate that by another 30 cents per word. That's how much you should be charging. The reason I can assert this is that it goes back to the original issue: Most people can't write. Most people are paying you to do what THEY CAN'T DO. Don't let those people -- those who would underpay you or not pay you enough -- treat you like they're doing you any favors.

You're doing them a favor by giving them the words they don't have.

Do yourself a favor and demand that they treat you fairly.