Today I am pleased to present my career interview with Norine Dworkin-McDaniel, the co-creator of , an illustrated humor blog for parents. Norine’s passion for writing shines though as she chronicles her career as a writer while sharing lessons she’s learned along the way:
How did you decide to become a writer?
I always knew I was going to be a writer. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. As a little girl, I was always writing stories. And I suppose I was a very early blogger, though back when I was in grade school in the ‘70s, we simply called it “journaling,” since there were no laptops back then, and the Internet didn’t exist. But, like bloggers, I’d write stories/essays about the things that happened in my daily life, then I’d staple the notebook paper pages together like a “book.” If only I’d had Create Space back then! Growing up, I was very influenced by the newspaper humorists Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry. That was my dream — to write funny essays in my hometown newspaper. Now newspapers are suffering and I write funny essays on my own blog.
You have an interesting background. Can you describe your career history?
I think I’ve worked in all written media save for papyrus and parchment! I started as a newspaper writer in high school. I’d go to class in the mornings and then work for the neighborhood newspaper in the afternoons. During summer breaks when I was in college, I worked in the features/entertainment sections at several large regional dailies, like the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Orange County Register. I started writing for alternative papers, like the Village Voice and the gay weeklies, when I was a grad student at New York University. After grad school, I made the leap to magazines, starting in the trade magazines as an assistant editor. Eventually, I worked my way up the masthead, landing bigger jobs at bigger magazines. My last staff job was as a senior editor at Vegetarian Times, a monthly magazine and managing editor for the sister publication Natural Remedies, a bimonthly.
But since I wanted to write more than I wanted to edit, I freelanced for other magazines as well. I pretty much spent every spare moment writing freelance articles. I got my big break in the late ‘90s doing a health feature for Good Housekeeping — on pet massage, of all things — and then I gradually segued into women’s health, children’s health, nutrition and relationships. I quit my job at Vegetarian Times to write freelance full-time in 1999. I’ve written for many of the magazines women read: Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, More, Fitness, Parents, American Baby, Redbook, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Shape, Prevention, Readers Digest, Health, All You. I’ve written for websites as well: Lifescript, iVillage, Everyday Health, AOL.
What kind of experience and preparation helped you the most?
I wrote for my college newspaper all four years I was in school and was the Arts & Entertainment editor for three. That’s where I started learning how to plan a section, how to work with and edit other writers, how to do page layout. I also interned at newspapers every summer. By the time I was finished with graduate school, I already had a sizable resume, with jobs at six newspapers — and I had great clips (writing samples) to show for it. I worked with some really wonderful editors, who helped me become a better writer. This on-the-job training, some of which was paid; some not, was invaluable.
Would you recommend this same path to someone starting out today? Why or why not?
It’s different today because blogging has really opened up publishing to everyone. Anyone can jump on Blogger or Word Press and start writing, and if they’re doing interesting things on their blog, and promoting it well, they’ll find an audience. But what I would say, though, to anyone who wants to write well, and/or professionally, is to get some kind of training, whether that’s in high school or college or adult continuing education courses or through the many seminars/online classes/conferences/coaching offered by organizations like or My friend Sarah Burns, who’s been my editor at four magazines over the years, is getting set to teach a Mediabistro course on .
It’s easy to do a blog. Doing a well-written blog is harder. But if you’re hoping to use your blog to attract brands and earn money or to become a blogger for your favorite magazine/website, you’ll need a good grasp of grammar/punctuation basics and a sense for how stories are told. All too often, I’ll read what could be a funny or engaging story on a blog, but the blogger has approached the post like a diary entry, starting at the very beginning of her/his day (“Well, first I woke up ….”) then plodding through every tiny thing they did till the funny thing happened. The post would be much stronger if they’d just started with the funny bit, then perhaps filled in the backstory for context. So, taking some writing courses to learn about how to structure a story, can be helpful.
What do you like best about your work?
My work is fun. It makes me happy. And I make others happy by making them laugh. Or at least smile. When I was strictly a freelance magazine writer, I learned a lot about health conditions, preventive care, good nutrition, what makes for good parenting, good relationships, etc. And I felt like I was giving back or providing a needed service by communicating information that women needed about their personal health, their families’ health. But after 15 years of doing that, I started to get tired of just writing magazine articles. So I created Science of Parenthood and work became fun again. My day is all about making parents laugh about the craziness of raising kids. There’s “work” there too. My partner and I have a schedule for posting; we have deadlines; sometimes things don’t always go as planned; we’ve had some disappointments. But overall, I feel supremely fortunate that I created something that people enjoy; that I partnered with a friend who has complimentary talents and a similar sense of humor; and that I am excited about going to work every day. Although, to be honest the only “going to…” I do is from my bedroom, up the stairs to my office, so it’s not like I have a long commute.
What is your biggest headache?
It’s not really a “headache” per se, but what my partner and I are focused on now is growing our audience. We’re constantly exploring new ways to get people’s attention because we know that people enjoy our cartoons. We’d like to have more people enjoy them.
What are the important personal qualities or abilities necessary for a person to be a successful writer?
- A love of reading. You become a better writer by reading good writing. I love writing essays, so I’ll often flip to a magazine’s back page essay and read that first. I tear-sheet a lot of those essays, not only because they’re enjoyable to read and re-read, but because I can read them for structure to get a sense of how the writer told their story in 750 words. I also like to read essay collections. Two of my favorites are Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, which is a collection of his New Yorker writings from when he was stationed in Paris; and I Wanna Be Sedated: 30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers, a collection of funny and poignant essays by well-known writers about the ups and downs of dealing with teenagers.
- Self-motivation and discipline. One of my favorite quotes on writing is from Nathaniel Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables, The Scarlet Letter): “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And that is the honest to goodness truth. Writing is hard. You need to be able to motivate yourself to sit down to write even when you don’t feel like writing, even when you feel intimidated by the blank page/screen. And you need to have the discipline to edit and re-edit and polish what you write until it’s as perfect as you can get it. Some people are blessed with the ability to write perfect prose in 20 minutes. I am not one of those people. I am a very slow writer. I need a lot more time to really make my work sing. How do I know when one of my stories is finished? I know my writing voice. When I hear it as I’m reading, then I know I’m done.
- A thick skin. Part of writing is rejection. By editors. By readers. By Internet commenters. You need to be able to brush it off and keep going. Case in point, an agent approached my Science of Parenthood partner and I a few months after we’d started publishing with the idea of turning the blog into a book. We were incredibly excited at the thought. And we put together a book proposal and our agent sent it around to every conceivable publisher … and we got universally turned down. There were publishers I never even heard of who turned us down. But we didn’t let it deter us. We know we have a great book idea and we’ll simply produce it ourselves. The publishing industry’s loss is our gain. I’ve also had my share of Internet haters leave nasty comments about my work. It used to bother me. Now I just don’t read the comments.
How many hours do you work each week?
It’s hard for me to keep track. It feels like I’m always working. But sometimes “working” means I’m writing and rewriting, or editing my partner’s work. Sometimes that’s reading and commenting on other blogs, looking for potential guest posters. Sometimes that’s doing social media to promote our content and other people’s content. Sometimes it’s networking or reading a book by an author I’m going to interview. Sometimes it’s brainstorming cartoon ideas with my partner … or ways to improve how we present our content to readers. Sometimes it’s being interviewed on the radio or webcasts or by other writers/bloggers, like Savvy Working Gal. And a few weeks ago, it was going camping in an RV with my family because a magazine wanted a first-person story on what its like to camp in an RV. So even though I was “on vacation” that weekend, I was still working, taking pictures, keeping notes, being hyper-aware of everything that happened so I’d be able to include it in the story later. I’m a workaholic. I am always working.
As a blogger, I can spend hours reading and commenting on other blogs. How do you focus your time to get the best results?
This one is hard because social media is so seductive, you can get sucked into your feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest and burn hours before you realize it. And I’m no more immune than the next blogger. Sometimes I’m more disciplined than others. But I find when I have deadlines to meet — and we have a set schedule for posting on Science of Parenthood — then I’m less apt to get lost in social media.
What do you wish you would have known before becoming a writer or blogger?
As a blogger, when I first started out — and I had two other blogs before I created Science of Parenthood — I did not realize just how social blogging is and how important it is to create community on your blog and encourage engagement and comment and share others’ work. Coming from Old Media (magazines and newspapers), it was very one sided — the writer to the reader. Sure people wrote letters to the editor, but the writer wasn’t expected to respond to every comment, only if it was something controversial or the writer had to address some accusation or point raised by a letter writer. With blogging, it’s very communal, readers want that engagement from the writer. It’s a two-way conversation, and it took me a while to get that. Now I really enjoy engaging with readers and hearing their stories.
Are there any books you suggest reading, training courses that would be beneficial or professional organizations aspiring writers or bloggers should consider joining?
I mentioned a few above — Writers Digest, She Writes (which is like Facebook for women writers of every stripe from poets to novelists, newbies to New York Times best-selling authors) and Mediabistro. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is a must-have for grammar. It’s important to know the difference between your and you’re; between its and it’s; to say you’re doing well when someone asks how you are, not good; to know that it’s people who…, not people that. These are common mistakes I see every day in blog posts and poor grammar really distracts from the writing.
As for the how-to’s of blogging, bloggers can get a lot of knowledge from joining Facebook groups and Google + communities where veterans are always happy to support newcomers and help them overcome blogging challenges.
How much can a writer or blogger expect to earn?
That really depends on the outlets you’re writing for. Print magazines still pay much better than websites, though articles are getting shorter, which is reducing payments. I used to be able to make $5,000 on a 2,500-word health story. Now that story is being assigned at 1,800 words, so the fee drops to $3,600. And with websites, they don’t pay even $1 a word, which is rock-bottom for a magazine. The most I’ve ever gotten for a web story is $750. Most are assigned at about $300 or less. It’s almost not worth doing the research … unless you’re in it for the “exposure,” which is what blog hubs like Huffington Post offer in lieu of payment.
I’ve written for “exposure” so that I could add certain kinds of blog credits to my author platform. I’m working on a couple of books and it’s expected that as a parenting/humor writer/blogger I would have been featured on sites like Scary Mommy, BlogHer, HuffPo Parents, Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. The payoff for me will come down the line in a book deal or books sold. But without that kind of future payoff promise, I doubt I’d blog simply for “exposure.”
Are there any scams, pitfalls or phony opportunities to watch out for?
This may relate to brands, but I can’t comment because I don’t write sponsored posts.
I recently read the age of the big blog is over and that blogging is sweatshop labor. What are your thoughts on this? Do you see a future in blogging as a career? What about freelance writing?
Publications, magazines, websites will always need freelancers because they need more content than what their staff editors can possibly produce, so in that way, absolutely, freelancing is still a viable career. Though the freelancers who will be best prepared today are those with multiple skills — people who can write AND take photos AND produce and edit videos AND do podcasts AND understand SEO best practices AND work social media like a pro. Because publications are moving online, there’s going to come a time when simply providing words won’t be enough. If you want to see an amazing example of this, check out the New York Times multimedia package by John Branch.
Your statement about blogging being “sweatshop labor,” I take to mean that there are so many blogs now, bloggers have to work much harder to get noticed. But I firmly believe that good content always finds an audience. You may need to sharpen your social media skills to help people find you — and pick up some publicity skills too — but if you have a good blog and you consistently deliver quality content, people will read you.
Now, others may disagree with me, but I believe that having a tight focus or niche for your blog is helpful because then readers know what you’re about and what kind of content to expect from you. At Science of Parenthood, we do one thing — parenting humor. That doesn’t mean we don’t cover or , but it’s always through a parenting lens. I find blogs that take the kitchen sink approach — crafting, cooking, recipes, coupons, beauty, social media, parenting, books, gardening — to be very confusing. If you have multiple interests, why not create multiple blogs? My friend Carissa Miller does this beautifully on her site where she has separate blogs for , , and that doesn’t fit into those categories under one URL. This approach gives her great freedom to write on the topics she loves, but it makes it easy for her readers to find what they’re looking for.
So, can you make a living blogging? I certainly hope so as this is my plan to send my kid to college. And many bloggers have figured out how to monetize their blogs by selling ad space on their sites or working with brands to write sponsored posts. For us at Science of Parenthood, blogging is what we do to introduce readers to our snarky, cheeky, quirky humor, and we’re hoping that eventually those readers will want to buy our fridge magnets, coffee mugs, postcards and coming soon, our books.
How do you stand out from the crowd?
The mommy blog/parenting blog niche is incredibly crowded. We stand out as Science of Parenthood by presenting parenting humor with a very unique spin — through a lens of faux math and snarky science. No one else couches the trials and tribulations of parenting in this way. Plus, we’ve got dynamic, colorful illustrations/memes that beg to be shared. The marriage of original content with eye-catching images makes us standout against the field of parenting blogs.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about yourself or your career?
We’re always looking for reader-inspired content. If you or your readers come up with a “scientific” principle on parenting and we use it on the blog, we give a shout out to the person who came up with the idea and a printout of the cartoon they inspired.
Thank you so much for the interview, Savvy! This was delightful.