Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rent the kingdom keys for a nickel? No more writing sweatshops

I have to scratch my head over this one:

A freelance work service I subscribed to sent me a chance to bid on a project first advertised on The stunner wasn't the appallingly low $25 for the project, a 1,000-word sales letter -- although I run an office, not a sweatshop for writing.

No, the jolt I got from reading the ad stemmed from the fact that it was a freelance marketing person looking for help with a sales letter marketing their own services.

In some kind of crazy loop, the writer seeks another writer who's "gotta lotta personality" to do what she can't.

She kindly provided main points and text she had brainstormed to give an idea of the feeling she was going for.

"The times they are a'changing. It's not enough to have a simple affiliate site or a poorly written sales letter up on the web. In these hard economic times, you need these new, guerilla marketing strategies to boost your sales."

To a woman who has been involved "in a variety of online and offline businesses" and who says she knows "what it takes to sell products - especially in this tough economic market" and plans to "show you how," I'd say "Physician, heal thyself."

And if it's true that a person with all those skills and all that capacity to make money regardless of the state of the economy has to hire someone else to write tantalizing copy to sell it, I propose that it's worth more than $25 to the person who can actually do it. A lot more.

Like the one I read last week about the woman who was going to write an e-book about copywriting but didn't have time and figured she'd job it out (for cheap) to a ghost writer. Might have even been the same chick. She probably sees it as subcontracting -- best to call it by its name, a ripoff of talent.

Don't sell yourself short as a writer by renting the keys to the kingdom for a nickel. Unless, of course, you think you can live on a nickel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Advertorial Schmadvertorial: Words for Sale

Some people are confused by the word "advertorial." Those who aren't confused may be irritated! But for ad departments at daily newspapers, advertorial can be the best thing since sliced bread that can help keep revenues on an even keel in iffy times.

The word "advertorial" is a blending of the words "editorial" and "advertising." Some bigger papers have advertorial departments that fall within the advertising department. The ad staff develop advertising sections ranging from auto to business to bridal to real estate to holiday themes, but instead of only being filled with ads, they contain advertorial copy.

If this is locally generated, it probably has advertisers featured within it. Sometimes advertorial sections run specials -- Buy a (minimum size, say 1/2-page) ad, get an advertorial piece free! Buy a full-page ad, get an advertorial story AND a picture free!! They don't always guarantee the story and ad will run in the same area, because that can be hard to do, depending on the layout. Also, different placement can maximize the impact.

The copy is usually designed to complement the section's themes. Done right, advertorial looks and reads great and feels like authentic editorial copy, giving the piece tremendous credibility and authority. Done poorly, some publications put out cheesy advertorial copy, or print nearly verbatim the clunky press releases the clients give them.

A great advertorial story is informative, adheres to good writing standards, and is a pleasure to read. It's also often the best bargain an advertiser can get in the paper in terms of exposure.

Ad clients may get authority to look over the advertorial copy ahead of time -- it's pretty common, since it's purely a function of advertising, but generally the newspaper's advertorial staff maintain final control so standards can be adhered to. The best scenario is that the person in charge of advertorial has real paper experience.

At bigger dailies, advertorial writing is often shopped out to freelancers. I was advertorial editor for a daily newspaper and then advertorial director for a small newspaper group about 12 years ago. For the daily, I did much of the advertorial writing myself; at the news group, I had two advertorial writers on staff plus we used freelance.

While advertorial can help keep revenues on an even keel in iffy times, there are whole editorial departments up in arms about advertorial. The biggest concern is that uninformed readers will read it an assume it's regular editorial copy. It does need to be differentiated lest readers get confused and think they can buy regular editorial space, etc. (They get confused anyway, but making the distinction helps.) Frequently the section or each page bears the note "An Advertorial Section of the Blablabla Herald."

In a bigger paper, regular staff writers will not be asked to mess with advertorial, as a general rule. The smaller the newspaper, the more likely regular editorial staff will have to play some part in advertorial.

On occasion, when lines blur, thanks to editorial and advertorial departmental plate tectonics, writers or editors may get caught in the middle and it's not pretty.

Two attitudes seem to prevail in many editorial departments. Writers and editors often either look at advertorial with contempt, or with gratitude that it brings in revenue and that they don't have to mess with it. -- J. Louise Larson

Monday, February 11, 2008

Creative Paw: Lend a helping word, for dog's sake

As writers and editors, we have a huge capacity to help those less fortunate every time we bring attention to their misfortune.

While the plight of children catches my eye first, there are some other victims that bear looking after. Although we may perceive them to be not without defenses, domestic animals are truly unable to help themselves.

There's a new organization designed to help writers and editors make a volunteer connection with organizations that help abandoned and neglected animals.

Writer Linda Formichelli has founded Creative People for Animal Welfare (creativePAW), which helps animal welfare organizations find creative professionals (such as writers, editors, illustrators, and web designers) who are willing to do volunteer work to help with their marketing, education, fundraising, and PR efforts.

Animal welfare orgs have to join and be approved prior to joining the database. Writers and editors who join take on only work they have time for, Formichelli said.

"According to the Human Society of the United States, a homeless companion animal is euthanized every eight seconds in the U.S.," she said. "Our mission is to help animal welfare organizations publicize their causes and educate the public about homeless pet issues. So please, sign up and get involved."

So what can you do? Proofing, logo design, press release, media hounding, copy writing? Think how much that mighty dab of talent of yours can help on some project. Think how woofing awesome it will look on your resume, and how it will make your heart purr.

Then sign up, for dog's sake!
Check it out:

-- J. Louise Larson

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Moving Writing: Advice to a Relocating Writer or Do I Talk to the Naked Man?

While some people love a move, for many of us relocation (even temporary) comes with worries as well as opportunities. When a move to the U.S.-Mexico border sent me into culture shock, the sure cure was to start writing, so I did -- but it took me a while. Had I had the following advice, I would have started sooner:

Look around at what's happening where you are and think of who would be interested in that. A move to Costa Rica caught you off guard? Make the most of it by looking around with a newbie's eyes. What's weird, interesting, different, exciting? More importantly, what publications would be interested in that.

Think outside traditional lines. If your writing to date has focused on daily newspaper, make connections with U.S. papers interested in what you've got. If there's limited interest with the usual departments you write for, consider other paper departments -- travel, the arts, business, religion come to mind. Connect with those editors at different papers with your articles targeted to their departments. Since you're down there already, you have a unique perspective. Bring your camera -- pictures may enhance your article's value.

When I moved to the U.S-Mex. border area, I looked around and saw international news happening. I checked around, found a magazine and a daily paper interested in having someone there to cover it, and I was in business.

The magazine was doing a piece on illegal immigration, which sent me to cover a couple guys climbing naked out of the Rio Grande, clutching their clothes to their personal ads and asking in Spanish for a ride. At least, I think that was what they were asking for. Um, I don't think so.

But had I had the nerve to talk to them at all, other than the safely shouted questions (and perhaps an interpreter as well as a bodyguard -- it was a remote place, which was of course why they crossed there) I would have gotten an even better story. Later in my career I got more nerve and better Spanish skills, and would have handled it differently.

Another example: a couple Canadian publications (McLeans Magazine, the Dauphin Herald and the Winnipeg Sun) wanted the scoop on the Manitoba teachers coming down to Texas to get jobs because Texas didn't have enough and Manitoba had too many. Fortunately this didn't require me talking to anyone naked.

Work on developing contacts in everything -- radio, newspaper, magazine -- before you go. Keep those names, numbers, emails close. When something comes up that's breaking news, go shopping for a place to sell it.

Makes my family crazy sometimes -- at the main scenic outlook of the Colorado National Monument, middle of a thunderstorm, the darn thing is closed with a sheriff's tape anyway, everybody wants to get to a hotel.

What's Mum doing? She's on the payphone (this was before cell phones), calling major news organizations, because she asked what the tape was for and there was an AIDS-related suicide, and this was at the beginning of the AIDS hysteria. Finally, the Denver Post says they're in for a news brief, so I had to talk to a couple people in charge to get the basics.Worth it to me, as I wanted the experience and the paper's name on my resume.

While you're there, will you be doing a lot of touristy type things? Consider checking with travel guidebook companies. Read their guidelines online -- check guidebook sites like lonelyplanet and moon See if they need a new guide written for where you're going. Familiarize yourself with their guidebooks so you know what they need.

Just getting going writing but interested in getting your feet wet? Do a blog on the area. But make it a good one. For examples, look at,, or

Another idea: check with the country's English language papers to see if they need stringers. Freelance work doesn't always fall under the same labor guidelines full-time work does -- and if they're U.S.-based, that trumps all immigration concerns.

-- J. Louise Larson

Friday, February 8, 2008

Dinner with Billie Sol Estes or How the Hidalgo County Courthouse Got Cameras

Being in the news business, once in a while you inadvertently become a part of a headline.

Back in the early 1990s, I covered the Hidalgo County Courthouse for The Monitor in McAllen, Texas At the time, I think there were six state district courts, but the burgeoning border population made Hidalgo County one of the fastest-growing metroplexes in the state (when pooled with neighboring Cameron County) and they added a couple.

I cherry-picked what I wanted to cover, looking for something interesting that would catch the eye of the reader and land me on Page One.

I always wondered why we couldn't bring cameras or recorders into the courts. They were strictly verboten, and not particularly common statewide. I learned that in Florida, there was a successful movement that brought recording devices into the state district courts, and that got me going.

Research revealed the problem. It went back to Billy Sol Estes, the larger-than-life Texas financier whose LBJ-era trial on charges of defrauding Uncle Sam deteriorated into a three-ring circus, flashes everywhere, that sort of thing. It also spawned a hailstorm of other conspiracies, including accusations of corruption and murder that reached into the Johnson White House. See Wikipedia's bio on Billy Sol here:

Although he was sentenced and went to jail, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that he couldn't get a fair trial because of the media circus of the day.

(Incidentally, some 10 years I later got to interview Billy Sol Estes, who was somewhat frail. A friend got him to agree to talk to me. We had steak dinner in Granbury, Texas, where he was working on a plan for a bed-and-breakfast across from the lake. He told the waitress "You know what I want." She brought a massive steak that seemed to have barely been seared on both sides. The resulting two-part story was published in a couple newspapers, the Lake Whitney paper and the Waxahachie Daily Light, where I was an editor. It was so long, of course, that it was divided into two long stories. Perhaps I'll print them here, and my picture of me and Billie Sol.)

Modern technology makes cameras much less intrusive, so I decided to go to bat for the freedom of the press in Hidalgo County -- my personal stand for the U.S. Constitution. See's outline of the Constitution here:

After research, I called my fellow newshounds together to talk about going to the HC board of judges to present the idea of allowing cameras and recording devices in the courthouse. That original group included Channel 4 from Harlingen, KRGV Channel 5 (Rick Diaz), I think maybe Tom Vinger from KURV talk radio (now a DPS spokesman and a reporter from the Edinburg Daily Review, and me representing The Monitor.

To me, one of the reasons to allow cameras etc. was the opposite of the Billy Sol concept - I felt an inmate would be less likely to be judged guilty if the picture in the paper of him didn't have to be an awkward manacled shuffling from the jail van to the courthouse lobby.

We got on the agenda of the meeting of the board of judges. J. Edgar Ruiz, County Judge, presided. They permitted our photographer, Luis Garcia I believe, to take pictures and I have a great one of an irritated Judge Joe B. Evins gesticulating into the camera, his hand a blur. I made the presentation, backed up by my fellow newshounds, and the judges agreed to ...

You didn't think it would be that easy, did you? The judges agreed to appoint a PANEL to discuss it. The Joint Media-Judiciary Committee would include the county judge, a couple district judges and county court-at-law judges, representatives from TV, radio and newspaper (me) and the sheriff's department.

We discussed all the options. A media pool, with one station photographing and recording and then distributing to others, was one way to go; a single source controlled by the sheriff's department was favored by ... the sheriff's department, of course. Just to test the waters, we got a picture taken by the sheriff's recommended camera, which was a Polaroid type as I recall, and I took it to my editor Jack King to see if it would work. He wasn't impressed.

In the end, after a few months of meetings, supported by both the Joint Media-Judiciary Committee and my other fellow newshounds, I presented an option to the board of judges: bona fide, credentialed media could come into the district courtrooms, but could be barred for behavior or other unspecified reasons.

Perhaps mostly because of constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and perhaps a bit to see themselves in the paper so they'd have a leg up come election time, the judges voted cameras and recording devices in. We had won.

Of course, there were video cameras from Channels 4 and 5 there to mark the day, so we became the lead story on Channel 5 and also featured on Channel 4, as I recall.

I took the first picture to appear in The Monitor of the inside of a courtroom. I took a picture of Luis Garcia taking a picture, and I cheated the shot so as to catch a judge (either Raul Longoria or Juan Partida), out of focus but identifiable, in the background.

And that's how we got cameras in the courtroom in Hidalgo County, and why viewers and readers could see images of subsequent trials of import.

For an update on which states permit cameras in courtrooms, check out this link:

Here's a link to Hidalgo County. Of that original panel, Judge Partida and Judge Mario Ramirez are still holding court.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Where The Writing/Editing Jobs Are: Thinking Outside the Lines

For fledgling and experienced writers alike, getting a job in a tight market can be challenging, to understate it.

Layoffs at newpapers, magazines and websites dump more candidates into the job market. Some of these are absorbed as writers and editors resolve to control their own destiny and be their own masters (freelance) or finally get into a line of work that pays (PR). Retiring wordsmiths are replaced by whole new classfuls of bright-eyed graduates looking for that foot in the editorial door--willing to work harder, unencumbered by family, able to survive on a smaller paycheck, while experienced candidates may offer a more settled lifestyle, extensive background and family to support as a reason to stick around.

Whether you're starting or seasoned, here's a reminder that getting into the queues for available jobs can mean creativity in the job search process. Here are some suggestions for improving the odds:

Good luck!

J. Louise Larson

Monday, February 4, 2008

Coming into print later in the game?

How old is too old to get into writing? I know a writer who published her first books in her late 70s. Conversely, I know a woman who told me wistfully that, at 42, she was too old to pursue her first love of writing. I assured her she most certainly was not -- but I remember feeling that way at 27.

The key is to just do it. Get started, in a small way if need be. The way to eat an elephant? A bite at a time.

Check out this article by a woman grappling with the idea of getting into writing. or this piece by Wendy C. Allen on
Also on, Johan Dahlberg gives several reasons you're never too old to write:

While school courses in English and writing and literature are helpful, don't allow those voices from past teachers or others who may not have known how to be helpful to affect how you feel about writing or what you're ready to learn about it. Most teachers know how to encourage talent, but someone may have deterred you or scared you or bullied you as a writer. Maybe you got a C- in Grade 10 English. Let that go. You may need new voices, a new star to steer by.

I have a friend who, like many authors before her, took rejection of her novel manuscript very personally, so it sat on her shelf. I haven't read it, so I don't know if it's literary treasure or trash, but I encouraged her to get writing for a local publication on a regular basis. She did that, and her writing has grown by leaps and bounds; she's even working on her book again.

For me, the impetus to get past the inertia of past failures came in the form of an aptitude test I took as an adult that pretty much told me writing was all I was fit for! It confirmed a few things I had hoped but hadn't dared dream -- and gave me the chutzpah not to look back for two decades of sheer, willful, stubborn progress.

The message to new writers? You can do this. The message to seasoned writers? You can encourage someone else.

For a list of elements of news writing, check out this Google search:

Catch 22: No gigs, no experience -- and no experience, no gigs

There's a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to the early days of getting published. I see it all the time on the forums at -- newer writers looking to get a foot in the door.

Here's the deal -- a variation of the traditional jobseeker's dilemma: You can't get gigs unless you have experience. You can't get experience unless you have gigs.

The recent explosion of websites offering to publish your work for free -- and the opportunity to blog at the drop of a hat -- have provided a way for those who want to write to their words out there.

Every Tom, Dick and Harriett (and every subject you can think of) has a blog. A blog chum recently suggested I do a Mother-of-the-Groom blog, since there are so many weddings and she hadn't seen one devoted to the MOG, and I have a grown son getting married. (My response to this is that my son would rather have dental surgery than be stalked by his mother so I'm trying to leave The Happy Couple in relative peace. Get it? Relative?)

Here's the thing: this digital newbiehaven can help you get online and loosen up your knuckles at the keyboard, but it can't do one thing that paid writers at paying magazines get.


I know -- e-d-i-t is a four-letter word. There's a clever joke about it by Granite Girl on mediabistro, and it goes like this: Lost in the desert, a writer and an editor are lost in the desert. The writer wanders in one direction, the editor in the other, both desperate for water. The writer finds an oasis with a pool of clean, cool water and calls out to the editor. The editor, joining him, promptly starts to pee in the pool. "What are you doing?!" the writer cries. The editor explains, "I'm making it better."

There's no substitute for getting edited, as painful as that sounds. A good editor will knock the rough edges off, and a good writer will learn something with every edit. Don't put an extra space between sentences. Here's where you put the hyphen. Most great writers stand on the shoulders of giants. I can name six editors who have helped to form the stylebook in my head.

Another risk with tossing stuff online is the possibility that it will still be out there in cyberspace, waiting for some prospective editor to Google you, long after you've learned better how to dot your I's and cross your T's.

Fixes? If you've just gotta write, consider writing under a pseudonym while you're experimenting.

And read, read, read.

Check out as a forum for your work. See my articles here: