About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.

Star-Trib’s Laurie Hertzel at #BUNarrative: “Write with a camera angle”


Laurie Hertze

While many sessions at the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston last week discussed abstract ideas about storytelling and voice, Laurie Hertzel’s session called Narrative Glue gave attendees six you-can-actually-do-this tips for crafting better narratives. “I’m your practical grunt for the day,” quipped Hertzel, who is the books editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Here’s an overview of her advice.


Write with a camera angle. To make the reader feel like he or she is in the center of a scene’s action, think like a moviemaker, suggested Hertzel. “Aim your camera at what’s important and use different lenses, pan around the room, show a couple of people in motion,” she said. This allows the writer to zoom in one person or action and zoom out as needed to move between actions or people and tell the story in a dynamic way.

Use both scene and summary. Technical writers are told to “show, don’t tell” (perhaps because they do too much of the latter) but Hertzel said it’s necessary to do both, showing through scenes and telling through summary. “Scene are used when you want to put readers in the moment,” she explained. “Summaries cover spans of time and stitch scenes together.” Summaries also give readers information they need to know but don’t need to actually see.

Use telling details and metaphor. Scenes should unfold moment by moment but the journalist needs to carefully choose which details to include. In the opening of a Star Tribue article about a troubled teen, reporter Larry Oakes includes the fact that the teen’s dog is unnamed, which serves as a telling detail. With each scene, Hertzel said journalists should ask themselves, “Why am I telling this scene? Who are the main characters? What happens and why is it important?” She added that description should fold into action so it becomes part of the movement of the scene, like in a New York Times story about two elderly sisters begging on the streets of Brooklyn.

Vary your pace. “You don’t want all scenes to move at the same steady pace,” said Hertzel. Shorter sentences and a clipped pace creates urgency and drama in a scene with a lot of action, for instance, while longer, more detailed sentences create a slower pace and allow the reader more time to process.

Move forward and backward in time. As long as it doesn’t confuse the reader, Hertzel said, it’s perfectly fine to move forward and backward in time. A New York Times piece about a mother forced to choose between throwing her baby to a stranger below or losing her in a fire moves between descriptions of the stranger’s high school football career, him racing outside to the fire and the scene of the fire itself. The central question of the piece—what does the mother do?—isn’t resolved until the very end of the piece.

Know where to end your scene. In transitioning between scene and summary, Hertzel recommended pivoting away from the scene during a powerful moment to keep the reader interested and keeping the summary short enough that it doesn’t frustrate the reader. A New York Times article about the stresses of working as an air traffic controller skips ahead to summary at several climactic moments. Scenes that drag on for too long can bore a reader. “You want the reader to keep moving into end of scene,” said Hertzel.


Chris Higgins on how to trade up great story ideas

Chris Higgins

higginsOnce you’ve broken into a magazine or website and produced a steady flow of articles, where do you go from there? How can you capitalize on a killer idea beyond selling it to a magazine? These are questions many mid-career journalists ponder. Chris Higgins, a contributor to publications including Mental Floss and The Atlantic, offers a formula for “trading up” in his new Kindle book The Blogger Abides. The Portland, Ore.-based freelancer points to writers like Joshuah Bearman, whose 2007 article for Wired inspired the movie Argo, as examples of successful “trade ups” from print to other mediums where the writer gets paid at each step (assuming they haven’t signed away their rights).

In Higgins’ own case, he parlayed an article on neuroscience into a story about an obscure medical condition for This American Life and sold movie options to a fictionalized version of the radio story. Ebyline recently chatted with Higgins about how other freelance journalists can “trade up” their own stories. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell us about the genesis of your story for This American Life.

My editor at Mental Floss Magazine asked me to write a one-pager about what happens to the brain when you experience happiness, so I asked around and got the number of a researcher. I called him up with my 20 questions about the neuroscience of the brain. Like, what’s up with dopamine and how do drugs work?

He interrupted me and said, “the most interesting thing I’ve ever come across is a condition called narcolepsy with cataplexy where the brain goes into REM sleep and you collapse. The primary trigger of this is strong positive emotions like happiness or love.” I asked it he’d ever encountered a patient with that condition and it turns out, he had one of the worst cases in the world. “My trigger is happiness,” he told me, “so I’ve learned to avoid all positive emotion in my life.”

I thought it was going to be perfect for This American Life so I asked around and it turned out I knew people who knew people who got me in the door. I talked to Josh Bearman, who is doing really well right now because he wrote the Wired article that Argo was based on. Josh is probably five or ten years ahead of me on the career track and he told me how he writes a story in one medium and then sells the movie rights to make a living.

When do you know it’s time to “trade up” as you call it?

In the moment I’ve seen a story I’ve just had this gut feeling that if I am interested and excited by a topic, I know that other people will be interested in it, too. Writers should really trust that feeling. As soon as I called up the interview subject, I just knew. He had such a challenging life story and such an interesting perspective on life and love. This is the kind of thing we see in movies, the kind of thing we talk about.

The criteria for moving to other mediums is that the story has to be emotional and it has to be surprising. I tend to go for the stuff that is a little bit tear-jerky because I think that’s really universally relatable and people care about it. The topics here were sleep and love, which are universal human things. It’s not a guy doing exotic basket weaving in Tanzania. He was a man trying to live a life with his wife and navigate the waters of sleeping properly and being in love, and that’s so universal.

Another example of “trading up” you mentioned in the book is when you wrote a three-part series on your own sleep apnea instead of writing a single post about it. Do you think that part of the successful trade-up formula is having an editor who gives you the freedom to do that?

I think the editor relationship is really crucial. It’s been different with every editor, and at Mental Floss my relationship with Jason English, the web editor is that he gives me the freedom to experiment. Believe me, I’ve flopped a lot, but it averages out. I’m working on a big magazine story about my sleep apnea now. [Ed. note: Higgins also researched a book proposal but decided after reading other books on sleep that he didn't have many new insights to add.] Having a trust relationship with your editor is crucial, and frankly the best editor relationships I’ve had have been things where I show up, I do good work and they begin to trust me because I did good work. Then other editors at the publication trust me because the first one did.

You’ve written about some obscure topics. How detailed is your research before you actually pitch the story?

It varies pretty widely, but the thing I want to know before I pitch something is what is the possible story here. Are they willing to talk to me? Is there something there? And then, I typically try to sell the story, but I don’t want to spin too many wheels in the process.

Author Kristen Fischer on finding success as a freelancer

When Talent Isn't Enough

Kristen Fischer headshot 7With freelancing and self-employment on the rise—the U.S. Small Business Administration reports that nearly 9.9 million Americans were self-employed during the second quarter of 2012—several new books offer business advice tailored to solopreneurs rather than small businesses with employees. Among those books is When Talent Isn’t Enough: Business Basics for the Creatively Inclined (Career Press, January 2013) by New Jersey-based copywriter and journalist Kristen Fischer, whose previous books include Creatively Self-Employed: How Writers and Artists Deal with Career Ups and Downs and Ramen Noodles, Rent and Resumes: An After-College Guide to Life.

Ebyline recently caught up with Fischer to discuss the challenges and opportunities of freelancing. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

What takeaway will readers find in your book that they won’t find elsewhere?

There are tons of business books out there. I’ve looked at accounting books, for instance, but this puts it in a single book and puts it into layman’s terms. It’s not too technical. They’re going to find a very relatable voice, not only in mine, but in some of the stories from the people I interviewed. There’s a lot of honesty that will make people laugh and not feel so alone. You’re learning from other people’s experiences and their tips.

One takeaway would be to look at your strengths. If you’re not a good speaker, it might not be the best thing to get up onstage. A writer may want to think about writing an e-book instead of going on the speaking path. It’s really going to encourage you to use your own creativity and carve out your own path. I think that nontechnical aspect is really what gives the book an edge.

What do you see as the biggest business challenges for freelance journalists and how can they overcome them?

You’re dealing with shrinking budgets. Nowadays it’s hard to get your piece published in magazines. Instead of those ads that say “I’ll pay you $10 for 1,000 words,” I think you really have to focus less on job-hunting and more on targeting things you want to write for. Chances are there’s not going to be this amazing market posting on Craigslist. Go to Writer’s Market, look at the magazines or other outlets.

Where do you think other freelancers struggle?

Most of the same across the board, a lot of people are struggling with rates and how much to charge. Freelancers need to know their rights. You don’t have to revise the work as many times as the client says. You can build that into your contracts. Whether you’re a moonlighter or going into full-time freelancing, you still need the business basics.

A lot of people realize they need some systems in place but it doesn’t have to be the same one as the freelancer next to you. As I was writing this book, it kind of helped me to see that. I’m still not using Quickbooks, I just use an Excel spreadsheet, and that could be a tragic disaster for me but it works. As long as I’m paying taxes and paying my bills, nobody says I have to use this fancy system. Everyone thinks they need to spend all this money to get software and programs, but it’s OK to do things your own way as long as you’re doing them with integrity.

#NMX preview: David Perlmutter on the evolving blogosphere


perlmutterOn January 6-8, bloggers from 50 countries will descend on Las Vegas for the New Media Expo (formerly BlogWorld). Come visit Ebyline at NMX and enter our contest to win free content for your blog.

Dr. David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Iowa, is holding the Journalism 101 For Bloggers at this year’s NMX conference. Ebyline recently chatted with Perlmutter about the changing online media landscape and his predictions for 2013. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

As blogging has evolved, how has your message about blogging and journalism changed?

We’ve gone from a time when bloggers and freelance writers were seen almost universally as outsiders, rebels, people who weren’t part of the system, and who were challenging the system of traditional media. To some extent there is a large community of bloggers that still see themselves that way, especially in terms of political bloggers.

It used to be that with a successful blog you could make a lot of money through advertising or get a six-figure book deal. Now it seems like a lot of the opportunities are trending more towards using a blog as a calling card to get hired. Is that what you’ve seen? How have those opportunities changed?

I think that social media now is less of a gold mine than a lever. For one thing, a lot of the shelf space is already taken up. There’s a lot of competition and there are people who have been doing it for a while and [corporations] who are spending millions of dollars on it. So, I think there [are] fewer opportunities to directly make content part of your success but rather see content as a lever to increase your success in terms of connections to industry [and] to other platforms that have a revenue model.

Every institution, [whether] nonprofit, governmental [or] corporate, is looking for people to be their leaders in how they communicate in this scary and strange new world that we’re in. Our students are being hired by Boeing Aircraft, by the Federal Reserve Bank, by McDonalds Corporation. They are being hired by non-media companies [that] maybe traditionally wouldn’t hire somebody right out of school with a journalism degree.

What blogging trends do you see in the horizon for 2013?

Well, obviously mobile. People want to carry everything around with them. One of our students referred to a desktop computer the other day as a “grandpa box.” That tells you how far we’ve come. I think if there isn’t a facility to get what you want, when you want it through a mobile device, then it’s never going to be as successful as something that is. And I think everybody, including Microsoft and Facebook who were a little slow on that, now realize[s] that.

Anything else you want to add?

One of the reasons we are doing our presentation is it’s incredibly important for independent bloggers to have a professional edge. And so, we are going to try teach them, in a very short time, some of the techniques that professionals use to look professional, to sound professional, to be taken [seriously] as professionals.

#Journo100 Finalist: Hazel Sheffield of Nomad Media Collective

farmers market

To highlight the wide diversity of journalism innovation projects proposed by our 100% Journalism finalists, we’re running short Q & As with our ten finalists.

Hazel SheffieldHazel Sheffield and five other recent grads of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism formed Nomad Media Collective, a group of international journalists based in New York City who collaborate on projects. Their 100% Journalism project would collect and organize data on farmers’ markets in New York City into a calendar and interactive map that consumers could access online or through a smartphone. “Organic food markets are ripe (groan) for investigative elements, which could include features on how ‘organic eggs’ are farmed or what pesticides we should really be worried about,” Sheffield wrote in her proposal.

“We could test different farmer’s produce against each other,” she adds. “Or follow a pumpkin from seed to table. Are retailers also growers? What is GM farming and why isn’t it labeled? As farmers markets grow in popularity, keeping track of them becomes more important.” They also hope to apply the model in other markets.

What follows is an excerpt from Ebyline’s recent conversation with Sheffield about her vision for the project.

What sparked your interest in covering farmers’ markets?

Well, we just thought it was an amazing opportunity to provide a resource that would really be impactful and useful to lots of people. It seems like there’s a huge explosion of interest and a huge market for green markets but there doesn’t at the moment seem like there’s a service that provides information on what people are buying or who the farmer is. They’re paying hugely different prices, so we feel it’s a great opportunity to help people out when they want to get fresh produce and they want to know what day of the week they can get it and where’s closest.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge of the project?

Well, I think the great thing about this competition is that there’s an army of freelancers to do the groundwork. I think the biggest challenge may be to keep maintaining it as a service. It would have to be something that people keep on top of and journalists would verify information from farmers. It’s a simple thing that hasn’t been done yet.

 Anything else you’d like readers to know about the project?

It’s a huge opportunity to provide a service to a market that’s growing. We hope it will be something that’s really useful for the consumer and farmers, too, because it would help them communicate more effectively. At the moment, it’s often very hard to know what you’re buying or whether you’re getting what you paid for. I’m really excited about the fact that this is something that’s happening in lots of cities in the US.