Ask Dave: How Can I Become the Next Erma Bombeck?

By Dave Fox

laura-campanile“I’ve just been asked to sign a freelancing contract with Gannett and need advice from an experienced freelancer…. If I want to be the next Erma Bombeck, and Gannett wants all rights to the blog and all articles I write for them, how might I accomplish my goal?”

— Laura Campanile in Wall, New Jersey
Twitter: @LCampanile

Thanks for your question, Laura. First and foremost, congratulations! If the largest newspaper chain in America wants your stories, you’re off to a great start.

You’ve asked me two very different questions, so let’s take them one at a time. I’ll answer your “next Erma Bombeck” question today and dive into blogging copyright issues next week….

Channeling Erma

Erma Bombeck. (Photo courtesy of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop / University of Dayton)

Erma Bombeck. (Photo courtesy of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop / University of Dayton)

My advice on your first question: Do not try to become the next Erma Bombeck. Try to become the first Laura Campanile.

Erma Bombeck was a groundbreaking and legendary humor columnist. Her stories of family life from the perspective of a Midwest American housewife filled a niche and gave a voice to an under-represented demographic in her day. She’s a wonderful person to look to for inspiration. It’s important to keep in mind, however, her success came because she found her own voice rather than trying to be somebody else.

Years ago, when I began pursuing a career in freelance humor writing, I devoured the work of my own biggest inspiration, Dave Barry. I read his columns slowly and methodically, picking them apart sentence by sentence to figure out how he structured his laughs. I swooned one day with ego-laced glee when, after writing a column for a creativity newsletter, a reader wrote in and asked, “Are you sure Dave Fox isn’t a pseudonym for Dave Barry?” My ego bounced higher a few weeks later when a friend said, “You know who you remind me of? Dave Barry.” But then, when I heard a third comparison, I realized I had a problem. I was becoming a cubic zirconium Dave Barry. I needed to be a genuine Dave Fox instead. I diversified my studies.

Chillin' with the Bombeck family in Dayton, Ohio.

Chillin’ with the Bombeck family in Dayton, Ohio.

Every other year since 2006, I’ve attended the ultra-wonderful Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. (In 2012, I taught a session on how to write travel humor.) The conference is always packed with talented, aspiring writers from beginners to seasoned pros. I love this conference — but I always leave shell-shocked by the large number of women who dream of making their fortune writing humor columns about parenting, marriage, and other aspects of family life — just like Erma did. (I say “women” because in my estimate, more than 90 percent of the attendees are female. But in the interest of gender equality, yes, I have met men with similar aspirations.)

I squirm when I encounter a massive group of people all wanting to write the same kinds of stories in an already crowded market. To succeed in this sub-genre, you need to find your own voice, your unique angle that sets you apart from the thousands of others who also dream of being “the next Erma Bombeck.”

Tracy Beckerman (another Erma Bombeck workshop presenter) has done this successfully with her Lost in Suburbia blog. So has Ariel Gore with her Hip Mama zine and website. (By the way, Ariel’s book, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, is wildly inspirational.) Both Tracy and Ariel became successful by (1) working hard at developing their own voice, and (2) building a brand around that voice — something that sets them apart from thousands of other women writing on similar topics. (And for a male perspective, check out Jim Higley’s Bobblehead Dad website.)

And, Laura, I think what you really want is not to be the next (cubic zirconium) Erma Bombeck, but to be a sparkly and successful writer in your own right. So… study Erma’s work. Also study the humor of other writers who inspire you. Watch what they do — how they set up their stories and punchlines, and how they promote their brands. Then, take a step back. Figure out what makes you unique. Carve out your own niche and poke your head above all the other family-oriented humorists. Maybe you have a passion for travel, finance, cooking, rocket science, camping, Frisbee, turtles, or… this list could go on for days. Can you incorporate that second passion into your stories?

Beyond that, follow the usual advice: Build your “platform” and get on social media. Blog like crazy. Take classes, seek feedback, write, rewrite, write when you don’t feel like writing, and then write some more. And if you’re not yet sure what will make you stand out among all the other writers who want to be like Erma, that’s okay. Start thinking about it. Write with that question in mind — “What is my sub-niche?” — and eventually the answer will come to you.

The good news is, you are off to a great start if Gannett is asking for exclusive rights to your blog. Now… should you agree to those contract terms? I’ll talk about that next week.

Got a question for Dave about humor, writing, travel, or something totally random? Send it to him via his Ask Dave page and you might see the answer in a future column.

Want to become a stellar humor writer? Dave’s online humor writing workshop, “Professional Humor Tricks for Writers, Speakers, and Other Misfits,” is packed with solid writing tips to help you write phenomenally funny stories. It’s open to writers of all skill levels and you can do it at your own pace, whenever you like. Sign up now and get started on the first lesson today!

Published on Wednesday, April 10, 2013

2 Responses to “Ask Dave: How Can I Become the Next Erma Bombeck?”

  1. Claudette Sandecki
    April 11, 2013 at 4:34 AM

    Congratulations, Laura Campanile. Offer of a contract can be a true ego boost, but it has pitfalls. Mainly, it hogties you from reselling any of your pieces. A big part of freelancing is reselling articles, but once ‘owned’ by a publisher, that is out.
    On the other hand, if you can become syndicated after appearing in Gannett publications, you could become rich in time.
    Reselling a piece is like a lunch between meals — it can refuel your drive and inspiration. You also gain a wider audience, though Gannett will widen your range of viewers for sure.

  2. April 14, 2013 at 11:11 PM

    Great advice, Dave. It’s a great idea to study other writers in your genre, but at the same time you don’t want to become a clone.

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