Vote for ‘Seinfeldia’ for the Goodreads Choice Awards

You can do so here.

How Posting About Britney Spears Helped My Career

I love Britney Spears, and I’m not afraid to let the world know it. It may be the single subject I post most about on social media, a situation further exacerbated by three quirky facts about my life: 1. My sister also loves Britney, so we’re often posting Britney-related minutiae and tagging each other; 2. I take a weekly dance class dedicated entirely to Britney songs and choreography, so I’m often posting either links to sign up for the class or video of the class itself; and 3. I play pop covers on acoustic guitar at a monthly open mic, and my Britney catalog is immense, so I often do whole sets dedicated to her, which are posted on my feeds. In short: If you follow me on social media, the one fact you’re most likely to know about me is that I love Britney.

This seems trivial, but if you are a freelance writer, I strongly encourage you to post the shit out of any such passions you have. (I would add this to the other great advice in this piece about scoring freelance work on The Muse.) My incessant Britney posting resulted in three great assignments the week her new album, Glory, came out in August. (It’s really good, please go listen to it, and make sure you get the deluxe version, which has the best songs.)

Here’s why it worked so well: The number-one way freelancers get assignments is so basic that beginners, in particular, never think of it. An editor—who is, after all, just a human being—thinks to herself, “I want a piece on X subject. Whom do I know who could do this?” Then a name pops into her head, and she emails that person. That’s it. You want that name to be yours.

So when Britney’s album dropped and editors I knew wanted to assign pieces about it, they immediately thought of me—I had, via years of passionate Britney posting, associated my name almost directly with hers in many people’s heads. The result was a week of indulging my passion, starting with a Billboard assessment of this album in the context of her career, continuing with a feminist analysis of Britney for Bustle, and ending with actually going to the MTV Video Music Awards to see her performance and write about it, again for Billboard.

Of course, it’s necessary to note that other factors had to be solidly in place for this chain of events to occur. Namely: 1. I have many longtime friends on social media who are editors at cool places. 2. I have been a professional writer for more than 20 years, and have written full-time about pop culture and women’s issues for 15 of those years. So I had to know the right editors, and they had to trust me.

Still, it’s worth noting: If you’re a freelance writer, posting about your passions isn’t simply fun. It’s good business.

An Oral History of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (and Other Recent Bylines)

Please check out a project I’m really proud to have worked on: I was the lead interviewer on Grist.org’s oral history of An Inconvenient Truth for its tenth anniversary. (Translation: I got to talk to Vice President Al Gore!) It’s a really fun read because the interviewees are so great.

Some other recentish stuff I wrote:

How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World (and helped invent fandom)

The Female Superhero Is Finally Here

Why Trump Is a Gift for Comedians

Mindy Project recaps

Searching for that One Magical, Coherent Professional Vision: A Freelancer’s Lament

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I’m basically all the dudes in this 15th Century German illustration, who are searching for … something.

I have always been the kind of person who likes to focus on one thing at a time, which is particularly funny because I have also been a journalist for all of my professional life. Journalism does not lend itself to this kind of focus. For the first five years of my career, I was a daily newspaper reporter who wrote up to four stories a day; even when things slowed down once I was at Entertainment Weekly, my days were neither sleepy nor predictable.

After ten years there, I quit to become a freelance writer. Finally, I would concentrate on projects of my choosing, in the quiet of my own home!

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

It turns out that being a freelancer who pays her bills, for most of us, means juggling many different projects, different types of projects, and often even entirely different roles within one day. Sometimes I’m a solitary writer. Often I’m a journalist interviewing people. Sometimes I’m being interviewed so that I can promote, say, a book I wrote. Sometimes I’m speaking in front of people about a book, or teaching people how to write or blog, or blogging.

This effectively prevents anything resembling boredom, but I am farther than ever from my dream of concentrating deeply on one thing, having that one magical, coherent vision for my career. I suppose that when forced to choose one word for myself, it is author or journalist or writer. But I’m going to have to sell a lot more books before I’m truly an author only. I wonder if I’ll find myself bored if that ever happens.

What’s your dream single-title identity?

Some Nice Things People Are Saying About ‘Seinfeldia’

SEINFELDIASeinfeldia just got its first early review from Library Journal: “Armstrong offers a masterly look at one of the greatest shows. The research involved makes this a boon to television scholars, but Seinfeld enthusiasts will also enjoy this funny, highly readable book.”

I’ve also gotten some lovely blurbs from some lovely people, for which I am eternally grateful:

“Armstrong is an excellent writer and a first-rate journalist. I can attest from firsthand knowledge that Seinfeldia is not only a great read but an accurate historical description about two comedians and one TV show that changed the course of television history.” — Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for Seinfeld‘s Kramer

“This book is the ultimate score for any Seinfeld addict.” — Fred Stoller, author of My Seinfeld Year

“From the stories behind the stories to the characters behind the characters, Seinfeldia delivers everything you always wanted to know.” — William Irwin, editor of Seinfeld and Philosophy

“At last, here is the quintessential book on how and why a show about nothing managed to wend its way through the mediocrity and emerge as a hit. Read it.” — Mike Sacks, author of Poking a Dead Frog

Seinfeldia is an addictive read for any TV lover. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s trenchant insight into the cultural phenomenon and pervasive fandom of the beloved show is real, and it’s spectacular.” — Maris Kreizman, author of Slaughterhouse 90210

“Even as someone lucky enough to be on the show, I couldn’t put Seinfeldia down.” — Larry Thomas, “The Soup Nazi”

Okay, enough self-promotion … for today.

What Makes a Good Blog Post Idea?

I’ve seen a lot of blog posts wherein the writer just spews out a list of “great blog post ideas that anyone can use” or somesuch: They’ve mainly compiled a list of topics that tend to do well online. I guess this is a “great idea” if you’re just looking for a tiny piece of the clickbait pie. But if you want to write a real blog that connects with real people, this is the wrong way to go about it. Ideas should come from actual unique thoughts you’ve had and want to share with readers for specific reasons. That doesn’t mean you can’t shape those thoughts into formats people tend to like — lists, yay! And it doesn’t mean that having a list of typical types of posts — reviews, advice, how-to, etc. — isn’t helpful for brainstorming. But in the end, the ideas should come from you.

That said, I came across this great infographic from DigitalMarketer.com that marries these two ideas — practical ways to generate ideas and genuine ways to determine if you’ve got a good idea.

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Anatomy of a Blog Post

Writing a blog post is pretty easy once you know a few basic go-to structures. The easiest of all, of course, is to just do a list like this—quick intro, a few bullet points, you’re done. But even the bullet-free, all-prose posts—what we media types would call a “written-through piece”—aren’t that complicated once you know how to adapt a standard article structure for blog posts. Here, I walk you through one of my recent posts and explain the magic along the way.

Part 1: The Lead

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So this starts us off with by saying something fun—and hopefully interesting and relatable to regular people, most of whom have not worked at Residential Lighting magazine, even though technically that’s what I’m writing about. In the lead, you want to capture readers’ interest. That’s it. Nothing more. Bring your A material, or they won’t stick around for the rest.

 

2. The Nutgraf

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In journalism, a nutgraf is your story in a nutshell, in a paragraph. (See what we did there? Clever, I know.) In blog posts, because they’re generally a shorter form, and because they often make their point explicitly in the headline, this might just be one sentence. Your main aim here: Orient the readers, tell them where you’re going. They want to know if they should stick around for the rest of this thing, and/or what your point is. It helps them feel like you’re not just blathering, diary-style.

 

3. The Body

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This is where you methodically make your points. This example post was fairly easy to organize, since I was essentially telling a story from a certain time in my life: I walked through it in mostly chronological order. I stayed focused, however, on the point: This was a tribute, so I hit the happy highlights. There were plenty of annoying things about this job, too, and other great anecdotes that had nothing to do with its surprising positive effects on my subsequent career. The key is to stay focused on your point, as laid out in your headline and nutgraf/nutsentence.

 

4. The Kicker

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This is your big finish! Stick the landing as much as possible. Make it resonate with your readers. This is your chance to be a little deeper or funnier or whatever is appropriate. Don’t just sum up, like you did in those five-paragraph school essays that ended with, “In conclusion …” Make it mean something. And make it feel like an ending.

Blogging Like a Writer

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Blog like you’re Edgar Allan Poe. Or some other awesome writer who’s less creepy.

If you blog, you’re a writer. A writer is someone who writes. You do. You are leagues ahead of the people who claim at cocktail parties to be writers but don’t actually put words down regularly.

So it’s time you started acting—and writing—like the writer you are. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Set a writing schedule and stick to it. Blogs are great for this, but you have to keep at it. Even if it’s only weekly, give yourself regular deadlines and meet them. This not only allows you to keep your claim on being a “writer,” but also allows you to get better at writing. Nothing beats practice when it comes to getting better at writing.
  • Read. A lot. Read other blogs like yours, other blogs not like yours, magazines, books. Reading is almost as good as practicing when it comes to making your writing better. It’s sort-of like practicing, or at least like watching other people’s game tapes to improve your football playing. You have to see what works and what doesn’t, which moves you want to swipe or even improve upon.
  • Learn grammar, punctuation, and spelling. For the love of Hemingway, you have to do this. I know it can seem boring. But no one is going to keep reading your work if it’s full of mistakes. If this is a weakness of yours, check out a website like Grammar Girl or sign up for a class like Gotham Writers Workshop’s Write It Right.
  • Read over before hitting publish! You will catch stuff. You will be happy you did. It’s so tempting to rush through blogging, but this one step will save you from commenters obsessed with correcting your typos and grammar instead of reading what you have to say. You won’t always be perfect, and the nice thing about blogs is that you can fix them at any time. But it’s best to have that first draft out there be as close to perfect as possible.
  • Know who your audience is. This will inform your voice and tone, which is a real-writer kind of thing. The more you picture a specific person to whom you are writing, the more your voice will come through.