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MBP #7: Paula Pant, How one ex-journo uses humor to write compelling and engaging content

Paula Pant, Afford AnythingPaula Pant is a former journalist turned personal finance blogger who runs a freelance writing business and a personal finance blog Afford Anything.

Funny story, I met her at FINCON in 2012 but forgot. When I saw her again in 2013, for what I thought was the first time, we hit it off, and I felt comfortable talking to her. I offhandedly mention that I feel like I’ve known her for a while and she told me that’s because we met the year before. 🙂

I asked Paula to come on the show because she’s very intentional in her quest to become a better writer. I credit it to her background as a journalist. She credits it to being the class nerd in the back of the classroom getting A’s and not making waves. Lately, she’s been looking towards humor as a way to make her writing more engaging (a brilliant idea) and her approach is to study the greats of comedy.

We discuss that, and more, in the podcast.

(and keep an ear out for a Zoolander quote!)

What will you learn in this episode:

  • Why a journalist who was on a great career track dropped it all to travel for two and a half years
  • How her training as a journalist was an asset and a liability
  • How she undid years of training to remove personality from her writing
  • The Afford Anything manifesto and how she weaved her personality into the core of her site
  • How she studies humor to make her content more engaging, including some tips of what makes “funny”
  • Why Coke is funnier than Sprite and why two is funnier than five (is it?)
  • Why telling a story at the start of a blog post works so well (the “anecdotal lead“)
  • The “close up, wide angle, close up” format for writing compelling blog posts (her example: Why My 77% Savings Rate… Means Nothing)
  • Why first person narrative helps you avoid passive tense, a writing no-no
  • What bloggers can learn from journalists about writing
  • Why top-notch writers still need an editor (or why Tiger Woods has a swing coach)
  • How she built an active freelance writing business supplemented with “passive” rental properties
  • She recommends that you kill your darlings

Paula is always a lot of fun and I learned a lot about writing, and improving, in this episode. If you did the same, please show your appreciation to Paula by clicking to tweet @affordanything and tell her how much you learned on the podcast!

Resources and links mentioned in this chat:

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Raw Transcript

Jim: Today we had the chance to talk to Paula Pant of AffordAnything.com. She’s probably one of the few trained journalists who is now a “blogger”. And I wanted her on because she has a very intentional approach to improving her writing and connecting with readers.

One thing to look out for is near the end. It’s some magic I was hoping to capture in these conversations, where we get to talking about her favorite book, and then that’s usually a closing question, but that spawns a whole discussion about a topic she calls, or that writers often call, ‘killing your darlings’, something I’ve never heard of before. But once I started digging into it, I absolutely loved it. I’ll be back at the end to fill in anything we missed.

Jim: Hi, Paula. How’s it going?

Paula: Great. How are you?

Jim: I’m doing great. I want to thank you for coming on the show.

Paula: Oh, no problem. Thanks for having me.

Jim: So I’ve been talking to a lot of bloggers and one of the most interesting things is that very few of them start off as journalists, as you did.

Paula: Yeah. I found that interesting too. When I started blogging I assumed that there would be a lot of ex-journalists in the scene. And as far as I know, in the personal finance community, I might be the only one. There might be one, maybe, maybe there’s one other. But yeah, it’s not really a common thing.

Jim: We had talked in the past before about it briefly, but I went back and did a little research. And it turns out you moved up from being a news reporter in Colorado up to deputy news editor before you decided, ‘this isn’t really for me.’ And you went traveling, you went to some exotic, fun places, photos. What led to that decision? Because it’s not really typical. And it looks like your career was moving in a great direction.

Paula: It was. A couple of things: When I graduated from college, my dream, if I had had the money at the time, my dream was to just go travel for a while. I’d spent all of my life reading about the rest of the world and learning about the rest of the world, and I wanted to see it in person. But I’d just graduated from college. I didn’t have any money.

Jim: Yeah. It’s tough to travel when you don’t have money. We’re going to do it later, but it sort of ties into the Afford Anything manifesto, that you don’t have to have a ton of money to travel.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. You need a, like, a few thousand, but you don’t need a whole heck of a lot. When I graduated from college, I had almost zero, so I needed to get a job. So I did. And I started working at the local paper, and started as an intern and eventually went full-time as a news reporter. And then stayed there for a number of years and worked my way up to deputy news editor. But the entire time I was doing that, I was saving like crazy. I was obsessed with saving money because I knew the entire time that I wanted to go travel.

Jim: So you had intended, had you always planned on leaving? And I guess this was around 2008.

Paula: Yeah. Yeah. I started working in 2005, and from ’05 to ’08 I’d always planned on quitting my job and then just traveling the world.

Jim: Wow.

Paula: It was the plan from the very beginning.

Jim: Okay. So nothing happened, say, in 2008, that pushed you in this direction. This was what you wanted to do.

Paula: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I think that what I encountered between the years of ’05 through ’08 led me to the conclusion that after traveling I wouldn’t go back to writing for a newspaper. I think the plan to take some time off and travel had always been there, but I had always assumed that once that was through I’d go back to being a W-2 employee at a print newspaper. And between ’05 to ’08, being in the industry, I realized that was not where the future was headed, so I had to rethink what I would do after returning.

Jim: That’s Interesting. I guess your “training” was as a writer, as a journalist?

Paula: It was, yes.

Jim: So that’s, again, another thing that a lot of bloggers aren’t. Like personally, I’m a terrible writer. Or at least — Now I’m an okay writer after years and years. As Malcolm Gladwell says, 10,000 hours, if you spend that much time at anything, you should be okay.

Paula: You know, it’s funny. When I started blogging, I mean no offense to anyone, but when I started blogging and began reading other blogs, I would go to these bogs and I’m like, these people are terrible! I mean, not everyone; there are some good writers. But there are so many terrible, terrible writers out there. It kind of surprised me. I was like, how can people blog if they’re not good writers?

And that was when I began to realize that so much of blogging is running a business. It’s not just the writing. And as an ex-journalist, I tend to think first, about the writing, and second, about the business aspect. But in fact, there are a lot of bloggers out there who, first and foremost, are businesspeople and they’re very successful bloggers. Because they think that way.

Jim: Yeah. It’s true. One other thing is that writing is a skill, and like anything, you get better with practice.

Paula: Exactly.

Jim: But with a blog, it’s more often about personality and your mission, a manifesto. And people are willing to look past your inability to write as long as they connect with the message.

Paula: That’s true. That’s very true. And in fact, my training as a journalist was both an asset and a liability. It was an asset in that I’ve spent years training in how to be a good writer, how to be concise and clear, and deliver a message. But when you’re learning how to write for a print newspaper, you’re intentionally learning how to take all your personality away from your writing.

For example, I would write an article that would say, hypothetically, two gunmen shot and killed a bystander at the 7-11 during a botched robbery on Tuesday morning. Police are still on the scene. You know? I mean, that delivers the facts.

Jim: That’s reporting, right?

Paula: Yeah, exactly. It’s straight reporting. It delivers the facts. It has no personality. And I’ve spent years learning how to not have a personality. And so I had to unlearn all of that.

Jim: That sounds so weird to say, right?

Paula: It does. It does. But that’s the whole idea. In journalism, it’s not about you. It’s about the story. So you really keep the focus on the story. Keep the focus on the gunman and the pedestrians and the bystanders and the men are now being treated at Boulder Community Hospital. They’re listed in stable condition.

That’s what you report and that’s what you write, and you remove yourself from the piece. You don’t talk about this is how I felt when I saw it. And this is what it made me reflect on. And now I realize that I’m going to make these changes in my priorities because of what I saw. Because it’s not about you. And in blogging, it’s the opposite.

Jim: Blogging’s basically one editorial.

Paula: Exactly. Exactly. It’s a huge op-ed.

Jim: So how did you work towards instilling more of your personality into your writing?

Paula: Well, when I started my blog, which was almost exactly three years ago, when I first began I wanted to promote the blog by guest posting. And I reached out to another personal finance blogger and said, “Hey, can I write a guest post on your site?” And he wrote me back, and in the nicest way possible, he basically said, “Your blog looks like spam.”

Jim: Oh. That wasn’t me, was it?

Paula: No. No, it wasn’t you. Yeah, you know, he said it looks really spammy. It kind of looks like a robot created it. At that time I didn’t have my picture on my About page because I was really coming from the idea of oh, this isn’t about me. This is about personal finance and this is what a 401k is. You know?

Jim: Yeah. Yeah.

Paula: Yeah.

Jim: So this is before anything. You go, you try to get a guest post. What did you take away from that experience?

Paula: Well, I wrote him back and I was like, well, do you have any suggestions on how to not make it sounds so spammy? And he said, show me who you are. Put your name and your face on your About page. And that sounds so obvious, but do it. Tell me who you are. Tell me your story. Write with the first person narrative. And so I started doing that. But it took months of really being intentional about bringing my own story in. Because I was so reluctant to do it.

Jim: Right. Right. And it’s funny. If you do look at your About page now, it has a lot of personality. It has the manifesto. Do you want to go briefly into the Forward Anything message?

Paula: Sure. Sure. Well, so I started Afford Anything because as I was traveling, my friends would often ask me how can you afford to travel for so long? Or worse, they would say, hey, I would love to travel. I’d love to go to all these countries, but I can’t afford it. And these were friends who I know for a fact were making a lot more than I was. Because newspaper journalism is not a high-paying profession. At all.

And so when they would say, hey I’d would love to it, I can’t afford it, it was just such a frustrating thing for me to hear because I knew they could afford it if they were really intentional about how they spent their money. And so I started Afford Anything to show people, hey, you can afford anything. You can’t afford everything, but you can afford anything. And that was how it began. And over the years, it sort of iterated into a blog that’s not just about setting priorities in terms of how you spend your money but also about cultivating freedom and independence, and creating multiple streams of passive income so that you’re not beholden to an employer.

Jim: One thing that came up, and I’m kind of cheating a little bit because we talked about this before, but in trying to put more personality and more of yourself into it, you told me that you were studying humor and how to sort of use the comedy elements to give your posts more energy. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s like?

Paula: Sure. So I am not naturally a funny person. You know in school how there were those kids who were the class clowns?

Jim: Yeah.

Paula: I was the opposite of that. I was that quiet, studious class nerd who sat at the back of the room and got A’s on everything, and didn’t make any waves.

Jim: That sounds horrible. No, I’m just kidding. I was probably the same person, the nerdy kid. But I know where you’re coming from.

Paula: Yeah, exactly. And so I’m basically taking that skill set of reading and studying, and this sounds so nerdy, but I’m applying that towards cultivating more personality in my writing. And so part of that has been studying humor, studying comedy. Because like you said, Jim, in the way that you said writing is a skill, humor and comedy is also a skill, and it’s one that I’m very actively and very intentionally working on.

So if you take a joke, something that’s funny, you reverse engineer it, sort of ask yourself why is that funny, and you begin to decipher thes patterns about what are the elements that comprise humor? Elements such as surprise, absurdity, hard sounds.

Jim: Hard sounds?

Paula: Yeah, hard sounds. Sounds like the “S” sound, “sssss” is a very soft sound.

Jim: Yeah.

Paula: And that doesn’t create as much humor as a punch line that has a hard sound like a “kuh” or a “tuh”.

Jim: Because there’s not as much surprise.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. So if you can deliver a punch line that has a very hard sound to it, glottal stops, things like that, it creates that element of surprise to the ear.

Jim: Oh. That’s interesting. How does that apply when you’re talking about writing? Because when you read something, your brain is actually vocalizing it in your head. So I guess that still applies in that case. It’s interesting that a hard sound would have such an impact.

Paula: So for example, Coke is funnier than Sprite.

Jim: I guess that’s funnier. I don’t know.

Paula: Or the number two is funnier than five.

Jim: Huh. I guess I have to think about that some more. What’s really interesting is that when you break anything down, it’s sort of like the engineer’s look or the tactical person’s look at things. Everything can get broken down into these little ideas, that you’re talking about hard sounds and surprise and absurdity. I always find it fascinating to learn about those type of things. Especially when you talk about humor, because humor — most people consider humor to be some innate skill that can’t be taught or trained.

Paula: Exactly. Yeah. A lot of people think that.

Jim: You know, either people are funny or they’re not. Just as people are — one prime example, introverts and extroverts. There’s a belief that that’s an inherent thing, that someone is one or the other. And what’s interesting, and that might all be true, but you can always sort of pretend until it is true.

Paula: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Exactly.

Jim: I don’t consider myself an extrovert because after we talk about this interview, I’m going to need to sit in a quiet place. Because this will, like, drain me. I mean, I enjoy it tremendously. It’s not a matter of enjoyment. It’s not within my nature, I guess, to expend this much energy and need some down time.

Paula: Mm-hmm. Right.

Jim: It’s kind of funny when something like humor is just a teachable thing. Just like extroversion in limited doses is also, I think, teachable.

Paula: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. And, you know, if you read the autobiographies of comedians, like if you read, Steve Martin wrote this autobiography called “Born Standing Up”. If you read those, you’ll actually notice how much time famous comedians have spent learning how to be funny. They’re serious about humor.

Jim: Yeah. Huh. Ha ha. I get it. Ah. I gotcha. I see what you did there.

Paula: So it goes back to that Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour thing. The people in this world who are the best at being funny are the ones who have really trained at it.

Jim: So now here’s the flip side of the coin.

Paula: Mm-hmm.

Jim: You are now trying to instill more of your personality and you were trained to be a writer. You had the years as a journalist, as a reporter. How were you able to sort of break through that training in order to overcome these natural tendencies that you developed through training?

Paula: You know, it’s been challenging. When I look back on my earliest blog posts, from three years ago, they’re embarrassing.

Jim: Yeah.

Paula: In hindsight. They’re really embarrassing.

Jim: My first few 200 are awful. They’re awful. Because I wasn’t all that great at writing. I was an engineer, so everything was very analytical and very dry. It was sort of like what you were saying; it was reporting in a sense. It was analyzing. These are the numbers. And that just wasn’t connecting as well.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Jim: I don’t know if it worked like this for you, but for me, I just decided, all right, I’m going to have to start telling more stories. Like, I was watching what other people were doing and what was successful. And J. D., who we had on the first episode, and we actually talked about you a little bit, he tells a lot of stories. And so I thought, I need to start telling a lot more stories. And through that, that was the way my brain was able to click. Because I couldn’t take something definitive to do — tell story –and then that sort of opened everything else up.

Paula: Yeah. I’ve done that a lot as well. In journalism we call that the anecdotal lead.

Jim: Hmm.

Paula: So in a feature story that you’re writing, so not breaking news reporting or spot news, but for a feature story you start with an anecdotal lead. So you’ll start by looking at one single microcosm: When Jennifer Cancio graduated from college, she did what any normal person would have expected her to do: She took a job within her field. But Jennifer was unhappy. So six months ago she quit her job and flew to Thailand where now she’s a surfing instructor.

So there you’ve got that narrow little microcosm and then boom, you expend into: Jennifer is one of 800,000 people who have flown to Thailand become surfing instructors in the past decade.

And then you expand into the facts and the statistics. And then you report that whole story, and then at the very end you tie it back into: Jennifer says it was the best decision of her life.

The formula for it is — if you were to use a photography analogy, it’s like close-up, wide angle and then close-up. And that’s actually a formula that, again, you’re taught as a reporter. And so for me, I started doing that because I was more comfortable telling other people’s stories than my own. Again, because that was how I’d been trained.

So that was how I started doing it. As I started adding that emotional element, adding that thing that can connect with readers by telling stories. But in the beginning I would tell other people’s stories and leave myself out. And it was just sort of — slowly I would tell one of my own stories. And then one more. And then one more. And began, eventually, just getting more comfortable weaving that in over time.

Jim: Do you remember the first story you told about yourself? The first one that sticks out in your mind?

Paula: I guess I had mentioned in my About page that I had traveled. So a few of my earliest readers would send me specific questions, asking about my travels. And so the first few articles that I wrote were in Q&A format where a reader would say, hey, I have these questions about the trip you took and I would just straight answer them. Yeah, that was how I first began talking about myself.

Jim: And then just over time you became more comfortable. You know, like dipping your toe in the water and then slowly walking all the way in.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And I still sort of play that close-up, wide angle, close-up. I still integrate that formula in a lot of the blog articles, even when I talk about myself. So all I’ve done is swapped talking about another person with talking about myself, but I keep that same formula.

So I wrote a post recently about the difference between savings versus investments, and having a savings rate versus having your investing rate. But the way that I introduced it was, hey, I took a look at my personal finances from the previous year and this is my savings rate, but really, that’s a meaningless statistic, and here’s why. And then the middle part of the story was the idea of savings versus investing. And then I closed out again with myself.

Jim: Mm. Okay. So you were able to introduce your story, but the article wasn’t about you, per se. It was about the savings versus investing rate.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. So it’s using myself as the microcosm to illustrate a broader point.

Jim: Cool. So having no journalistic background, I use stories, one, because it connects and whatnot, but it’s also good from a copywriting perspective. Because the goal of the headline is to get you to read the first sentence, to get to read the second, et cetera. And stories, people just naturally start following a story. It’s like, what happens next? I want to know what happens next. Tell me, tell me. I’m going to keep reading. Next thing you know, now I’m learning about savings versus investing rate. Paula tricked me.

Paula: Exactly. Exactly. And also, from a writing perspective, people — it’s easy to go into passive tense or passive voice. I had that problem, and I’ve had years of training. So one thing that’s really cool about writing a first person narrative is that you’re sort of forced to write with proper sentence structure: I did this, I thought that, I looked at this. You know, subject-verb-object.

Jim: Yeah.

Paula: So my advice to anyone who’s listening, especially if you’re not that great of a writer, is that telling stories, and especially beginning each sentence with “I” or “We” is a great way to keep your sentence structures on track.

Jim: That’s a very good point. Very good point. So if I’m a blogger and you, sort of straddling both worlds, if you want to think of it in those terms, what are some things that bloggers can learn from journalists on how to become better writers, or just better storytellers, or anything?

Paula: The number one take-away is be concise. Because, unfortunately a lot of people believe that longer equals better, and that a 5000 word blog post is necessarily, inherently better than an 800 word post. That’s not necessarily the case. As a reporter, you’re trained to convey the most amount of information in the least amount of words. And I think that’s a very valuable skill to have because brevity is just so key to creating good content.

And there’s a difference between brief and short. Like it’s fine to have a 5000 word blog post that is 20,000 words distilled down to its 5000 word essence. You know? It’s not okay to have a 5000 word blog post that is 3000 words that you’ve just inflated for the sake of putting in a bunch of filler, you know?

Jim: So how do you be brief?

Paula: The analogy I always give, because I come from finance blogging, is be frugal with your words. Pretend that you’re paying $2 for every word and ask yourself if you’d pay that money for that word. Because this is what happens: In the world of print journalism, if you’re freelancing for a magazine, that magazine might be paying you two bucks a word, and so they’re not going to let you put in filler, you know?

Jim: They only have so much space in the newspaper. You have to fit it in.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. Your requirement, usually it’s not word count, it’s column inches.

Jim: Yeah.

Paula: And so you have to fit the story within a certain number of column inches. And so yeah, that’s what the advice is. Be frugal with your words and be really ruthless in the way that you slash your expenses if you’re trying to get out of debt. Slash your words. If every word costs you $2, you’re going to be really hell-bent on cutting out the words that don’t justify that expense.

Jim: That’s a good way of thinking about it. I’ve never actually thought about it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. I was talking with J. D. and he said you should take a lot of time editing. I’m sure you have rules of thumb about this too. He said for every half-hour of writing, you do two hours of editing. And then you can definitely be brief and start cutting it down.

Paula: Yeah. I totally agree. I totally agree. And in fact, write your initial draft, and then put it away, go to bed, and open it up the next day. And you’ll read it with fresh eyes and you’ll be able to slash a bunch of words right then and there. And then do that a few times. Do a few iterations of that. Just look at it once a day, and every time that you look at it, look at it with a machete and just be ready to start cutting.

Jim: It’s funny. You told me in the past that it takes you five hours, or somewhere around that level, to write each blog post.

Paula: Yeah. It does.

Jim: How much of that would you consider editing versus actual creation?

Paula: Editing is the bulk of that.

Jim: So I think that’s a trend. You don’t know this when you’re an individual blogger on your own, even when you’re talking with other people. I remember back in the day I would talk with J. D. and say, Oh, it takes me forever to “write a post”. What he meant was it took him forever to edit a post. But I always heard, “write, write”.

I don’t know if it’s safe for me to admit this, but on Bar Canary I edited maybe five minutes for every five hours of writing I did. And yes, the writing was bulky and heavy. It was conversational, which is fine, but like, tons more words than I needed. If I had to pay $2 per word, I’d be way broker, if that’s proper to say.

But you don’t know this unless you talk to someone about the writing process. And since bloggers mostly are not writers by training, they don’t think in those terms. They’re just thinking, well, how do I get my words onto the piece of paper? And once that happens, it’s almost as if, all right, I’m done.

Paula: Mm.

Jim: And I’ve heard in the past, someone has told me, editors have told me, you need to get an editor. You’re just wasting words. Those are bits and bites that the Internet’s not getting back because you’ve sent this to me. I was like, aww, come on. It looks all right. I read it out loud. I know some of the tricks where you read it out loud to make sure you don’t skip words and that sentences aren’t too long. But I’ve done that but it’s still just way too much. So it’s always good to hear, especially from people that I consider to be good writers, who train at it, who practice at it.

Paula: Yeah. Absolutely. And I believe that everyone needs an editor. I would love to, at some point, I haven’t done it yet, but I would love to hire a freelance editor who I can just send them every blog post before it goes on Afford Anything. Because there’s something about having another set of eyes, and particularly a very skilled, very trained set of eyes.

An Olympic tennis player still has a tennis coach. An Olympic swimmer still has a swim coach. So no matter how good you are, you always benefit from having another person who’s equally skilled and equally trained, or more so. Preferably, hire people who are better than you. You always benefit from that. So yeah, I’m very much a believer that no matter how good you are, you can always benefit from having an editor.

Jim: The other interesting thing that J. D. mentioned was that he actually goes to his local community college and takes writing classes. He takes creative nonfiction writing classes. Is that something that you’ve — are there things that you do to sort of practice that writing, that don’t necessarily appear on Afford Anything?

Paula: I read books about writing, and most recently I’ve been reading about humor. But I read books about the craft of writing. The last writing course that I took — it was back when I was still working at the newspaper. It was after I had graduated from college. It was just an evening course on magazine writing. I’d go to conferences, like the Society of Professional Journalists. I’ll go to their conference and go to the various writing sessions. And then I help teach people how to write as well, and I think that helps a lot in that sometimes the best learning comes through the act of teaching.

Jim: Yeah. That’s true. Because it forces you to fully understand it and then think about it as you’re doing it.

Paula: Exactly.

Jim: That’s cool. I wanted to kind of switch gears and go back to Afford Anything and the site. I love the line that I think accomplishes the site, which is, “You can’t afford everything, but you can afford anything.” One of the things that you talk about is the idea of passive income. In addition to running that site, you have rental properties and you actually have another business that does freelance writing for major publications and websites and all that. How did that all get started?

Paula: Well, as I’d mentioned earlier, when I returned from two years of traveling, I’d come to the conclusion at that point that I wasn’t going to be a W-2 employee anymore. I had just begun to see that the future of journalism is not print news, and that I very much believed that the future is going to be far more entrepreneurial and far more digital. And I was actually very hesitant about that because I have no computer-related skills. Like I’m the type of person who’s like, how do you open Microsoft Word again? My machine is broken.

Jim: Somebody fix it. Files are in the computer.

Paula: Exactly. Exactly. And so I was like, oh, man, I don’t want to learn about computers. But you know, I just had to, what’s the expression? Swallow the frog?

Jim: That doesn’t sound fun either.

Paula: You know, I was like, I guess I have to do this. I’m going to have to learn WordPress. I’m going to have to learn basic HTML. And it’s not so bad. You know?

Jim: Yeah. So you come back from the trip.

Paula: Yeah.

Jim: You start Afford Anything. Is that the first thing you do or do you start getting into the rental property business?

Paula: The first thing that I did was I started looking for freelance writing jobs, thinking that I would be a full-time freelance writer. And I started Afford Anything sort of on the side. To help me practice writing, to teach people how to be better with their money.

Jim: To force yourself to swallow the frog.

Paula: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And over time the two sort of grew hand in hand. The bigger Afford Anything became, the more freelance writing opportunities I was receiving. Until I got to the point where I no longer had to go out and pitch stories. People would come to me. Other websites, other publications would come to me and say, hey, we looked at your blog. We love your writing style. We were wondering if you could write for us. And so those two grew hand in hand.

And then eventually that freelance writing angle, it sort of took on a life of its own, and people started asking me, hey, our company has a blog and we were wondering if you could help us with some of the blog marketing and the blog management aspects of it. Can you help us with building an audience for our blog? Can you help us with search engine questions that we have and social media questions? And so it sort of grew organically. I kind of transitioned from freelance writing into this broader scope of blog management and content marketing and digital marketing. And it wasn’t anything that happened by design. One step just led to the next.

And so eventually I just formed a company called Catalyst Digital Marketing, which basically was just my attempt to give a different title and a different brand name to these two different things that I do. Afford Anything is my blog that I write, and Catalyst Digital is all of the services that I offer to other websites that need it or that want it.

Jim: How much of your background as a journalist do you think contributes to the fact that you are so appealing as a blog writer or manager?

Paula: Well, I think that it gave me a leg up insofar as my ability to write well from the beginning. But again, it also was an obstacle in that I really struggled to put personality into my writing. So I think it worked both ways. It was both an asset and a liability.

Jim: So of the two, which do you — I was going to ask which one do you like more, but it’s kind of like picking children, I guess. It’s not really a fair question to ask.

Paula: Oh, you mean between Afford Anything versus the client work that I do?

Jim: The Catalyst Digital Marketing.

Paula: I mean, they work together so hand in hand. The more that I help clients manage their blogs, the more I — I take the lessons that I learn with Afford Anything and I use those lessons to help clients. And then as that sort of evolves and iterates, new lessons are gleaned from that, that I bring back to Afford Anything. So the two sort of function in the symbiotic relationship where the better one gets, the better the other gets.

Jim: So you know it’s funny you say that, and that now you’re studying humor. That’s what standup comics do, right? They go do these shows, these smaller standup gigs, and they test material, and the things that work survive to whenever they go on national television or have a much, much bigger production. It’s kind of funny that it sort of has that, not analogy — I can’t think of the word. That parallel to what you’re doing. Maybe you should have been a comic. Sounds like the approach is very similar.

Paula: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, I guess that’s what a lot of — I guess fundamentally as a standup comic you’re a content creator. So maybe that’s the universal link.

Jim: Yeah. That’s cool. So neither of these sound passive.

Paula: No, no. Blogging is certainly not passive.

Jim: I mean, as much as we’d like to think that you write a blog post and then you don’t have to do anything. You still have to create new stuff all the time.

Paula: Yeah, exactly. And manage it and deal with it. Yeah, there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes. And to anyone who’s listening who hasn’t yet started blogging, that’s one thing that I’ll say, is that a lot of people are surprised when they discover how much goes on behind the scenes. Because a lot of people, like myself, when I started was like, oh, you just write an article. Isn’t that all there is to it? And then all of a sudden, I’m learning what a plugin is, and I’m like, what?

So no, it’s not passive. But I do, as you’ve mentioned, I do invest in rental properties, and that’s super passive. Initially, it takes quite a bit of time and effort for the setup, to search for a property, to buy it, to get the financing, to renovate it if you’re buying a fixer-upper. But once all of that happens and you get a tenant in there, then it just becomes this completely passive enterprise.

JIm: And some people enjoy it. I don’t know if it’d be for me. I don’t know. Do you use a property management company?

Paula: Depends on the property. I’ve got one property that’s 30 minutes away, so there’s no way I’m driving 30 minutes. I barely drive five minutes.

Jim: Fair enough. I mean, that’s how you can keep that part of it passive, right?

Paula: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it just depends on the property. For some I use property management and for some I don’t.

Jim: Cool. Well, our time is coming to an end. I wanted to thank you for coming on the show. People are going to get a lot out of this, especially bloggers that are trying to get better at writing.

Paula: Well, I hope so. Thank you.

Jim: But definitely, before we go, I wanted to ask what is your favorite book right now?

Paula: Ooh. On what topic?

Jim: On any topic. I was going to say if your library burned down and you were going to go buy books again, what’s the first book that you want to make sure you have? But it sounds so morbid.

Paula: Plus I would just get a Kindle.

Jim: Ugh. That’s true. Nobody reads books anymore.

Paula: Huh. In terms of learning about personal finance, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki is a classic. “The Millionaire Next Door,” another classic. In terms of learning about how to write — don’t take this as, like, a political statement at all —

Jim: Sure.

Paula: –but there’s a book by Al Franken that he wrote back in the ’90s called “Rush Limbaugh’s a Big, Fat Idiot”.

Jim: Yeah. I remember that book.

Paula: I’ve actually found that to be, regardless of your political views, it’s a very good book to read if your intent is to write in a more humorous tone. In fact, sometimes, if my goal is to create humor in my writing, then immediately before I write I read or reread a passage of a book that I’ve found to be particularly funny. And then immediately start writing. And so I’ve got that funny in my head that sort of translates onto paper.

Jim: That’s good.

Paula: And I do that with the “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot.” Regardless of your political views, it’s a very funny book. He’s a very skilled comedian. I reference it again and again when I’m trying to reverse engineer humor.

Jim: That’s really clever. This is sort of like, do you ever do anything where you start writing and trying to be funny, and then you just throw it away to try to get into — like warming up?

Paula: Yeah. I actually — oh, another great book on writing that your comment reminded me of, Stephen King wrote a book called “On Writing”, and he has this motto in it, “Kill your darlings”. Which basically means you write something and sometimes you just need to throw it away. But emotionally you don’t want to throw it away because you’ve just spent hours writing it, and you’re proud of it and you’ve got this sunk cost and you’ve got that emotional connection. And so kill your darlings or murder your darlings.

Jim: Geez.

Paula: Such a Stephen King thing to say. But yeah, that’s exactly the process that you have to go through. So I actually have a file folder on my desktop called Kill Your Darlings.

Jim: And all your darlings are in a file folder?

Paula: Exactly.

Jim: That’s very Stephen King-esque.

Paula: Exactly. And then emotionally I don’t have to throw it in the trash can because I know that it still exists in a file folder on my desktop, that realistically I will never open and a year from now just end up throwing away. But psychologically it helps that I just spent five hours writing this, but it needs to go.

Jim: Oh, so these are like things that you spent a very long time writing.

Paula: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Jim: Wow. It’s funny. So going back to the comics. There’s this one special that’s got Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C. K., Chris Rock, and who’s the British comedian? Did “The Office”? So anyway, they’re talking about writing jokes and all this. And Louis C. K. says — and normally comics, they end with their killer joke. Like, the close. But he says every year he takes his very best and puts it at the front so that he’s forced to make the rest of his show that much better. So every year, he’s innovating, because he’s taken the best from last year, killing off everything else, and then making it “the worst, the opener,” the following year.

Paula: Nice. That’s a great strategy.

Jim: And all the other guys are like, that is scary.

Paula: Yeah.

Jim: But that’s his process, and it’s kind of very similar to the kill your darlings. Which still sounds weird to say out loud. Oh, that’s good. I like that. Cool. Well, I mean, thank you so much again. I have to thank you again. Because after I said thank you we went to this whole other section of awesomeness. But thank you, and I appreciate it.

Paula: No problem. No problem. Thanks for having me on.

Jim: Now if people want to find you, where do they go?

Paula: AffordAnything.com.

Jim: All right. We’ll look for you there.

Paula: Cool.

Jim: And if people are in need of freelance writing, they can go to CatalystWriter.com too, right?

Paula: Yes, absolutely. Or if you’re on Afford Anything, there’s a button, Work With Me, click on that; it’ll take you right there.

Jim: Got it. All right. Thanks a lot, Paula.

Paula: Cool. Thanks.

Jim: Take care.

I was so glad I was able to get Paula on the show because she’s so much fun to talk to and she has an approach that’s very similar to my own: lots of study and practice. Her blog, AffordAnything.com, is a fun read as well, and it’s getting funnier by the day.

To see the show notes, links, and all that good stuff, go to Microblogger.com/7, number 7. And if you have a minute, if you could give us a review on iTunes and tell all of your friends about this awesome new podcast that you discovered, it would help me out a lot. It’s how other people can find the podcast, and thank you so, so much.

If you want to reach me, hit me up at Jim@microblogger.com or @wangarific on Twitter. See you next time!

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Jim

In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog (Bargaineering.com) that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

3 responses to “MBP #7: Paula Pant, How one ex-journo uses humor to write compelling and engaging content”

  1. Forest Parks says:

    Really enjoyed the chat with Paula, cool to get a professional who went into blogging and hear it from that side. I’m still not a very good writer and definitely need to take a leaf out of Paula and JD’s book regarding editing!

    • Jim says:

      Yeah, there were a couple things in there that I really liked, which is part of the fun of these podcasts. The fact that she writes entire posts and basically archives them just boggles my mind, but it’s like warming up in any physical activity… it makes you better.

  2. I really enjoyed and learned from your podcast. I am new to blogging and your insights and comments are very helpful. Keep up the good work!

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