For the third year in a row, Dwain Hebda, founder and president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, has won the Arkansas Press Women’s Sweepstakes Award.

Hebda, who also serves as editor in chief of AY Media Group and lead writer for Wheelhouse Publishing, is sharing invaluable insights and practical advice, illuminating the path to his journalistic success.

How did you first get started in writing/media?

My father and mother owned the weekly newspaper, The Nance County Journal, in the small Nebraska town where I grew up. My earliest memories in the shop are of the smell of newsprint and ink. By the time I was in first grade, they’d put me to work cutting tear sheets for advertisers and emptying trash cans. I worked there in various capacities throughout my growing up. The business also included a commercial printing operation that helped pay the bills, but I never took to that part of the business. Newspapering, on the other hand, fascinated and enthralled me from Day One. 

Words always came easily to me, and I wrote my first piece for the paper in seventh grade. I was a benchwarmer on the junior high basketball team, and Dad asked me to write about the result of one of our weekly games. I remember writing an epic sports saga that filled two or three pages on a legal pad, typed it up, turned it in and eagerly awaited its publication. When it appeared – all three column inches of it near the back – I was thrilled and crushed at the same time. My stuff was in black and white, but the message from my first editor was loud and clear. I’ve been working on my craft ever since. 

How many articles do you typically write on average?

Despite several attempts through the years to keep count, I honestly have no idea. It varies during the year, though not much, as I have been very fortunate to write for magazines and periodicals that keep inviting me back for more. Suffice to say, I have enough to keep me steadily busy which is golden for a freelancer. 

What are the steps you take to being a good writer/reporter/editor?

Good writing starts with a good interview, and a good interview starts with curiosity supported by a little research. You want to be just informed enough to show them you’ve invested time to prep, without coming off like a know-it-all. You show respect for your subject when you take the time to learn something about them and that respect feeds their confidence in you as someone who knows what they are doing. A writer who doesn’t invest in the art of the interview is like a chef that uses all-frozen ingredients; technically the end dish is the same, but the quality between theirs and the cook using fresh ingredients is worlds apart. 

My career has always dealt with positive subject matter and so the people I talk to are generally happy about being in the piece. However, many are intimidated about being interviewed and how they will sound in print. My goal is always to be less of an interviewer and more of a conversationalist, trying as much as possible to create a dialogue. To do that, I’m a big believer in warm-up questions – any idiot can pull the CEO’s name and bio off a website, but using name spellings, where they went to college and other layup questions as your warm-ups can ease the subject into the rhythm of answering questions and that momentum often carries into the rest the interview. 

I also try to work in questions that come at the topic from different angles, especially if I am talking with someone more experienced in interviews or who has been written about a lot. Boring, anticipated questions tend to yield boring, canned answers. Asking a relevant question from left field, however slightly, does the opposite and often yields the best quotes, not because you caught them off-guard but because you made them think along a different line of inquiry.  

As far as constructing the story and the approach one takes to it, that’s all a matter of individual style developed over time. I am as proud of a straightforward business article that’s well constructed as I am the feature work which allows me to employ a little more creative license. Every story has a flow to it, the best ones unfold in a meaningful sequence, using clear yet engaging language that makes sense. I’ve been described professionally as a good storyteller and I like that a lot.  

How do you feel about winning the Sweepstakes Award for the third year in a row?

This is a tremendous honor and one for which I am exceptionally grateful. To be recognized by an organization with the history and talent that APW has always possessed makes this particularly meaningful. To do it multiple times is more than I could have ever expected 15 years ago when I started out as a freelancer.  

I also want to say that this is an award I share with my wife, Darlene, who works to keep me on task and on schedule at Ya!Mule (no easy job). Every year when we prepare our entries, I am surprised to see how much work she has helped us produce in a calendar year. Also, what I do can’t happen without publishers, editors, and publications willing to invest in us and let us do our thing. This award is as much a reflection of them as it is myself; without them, none of my work would ever see the light of day. 

Out of all of your awards in this year’s APW contest, can you name a couple of articles that were your favorites and why? 

Contests tend to attract a writer’s favorite and best work, so it’s nigh on impossible to really narrow it down to just a couple favorites. The ones that win do so in the judges’ opinion and can take you by surprise, so it’s not as easy as just picking from a batch of first placements. That said, there are a couple that stand out this year.

Without question, the most impactful interview I did for a story in this year’s competition was with a police officer and recovering alcoholic who told me of his suicide attempt during the very darkest days of his drinking. I had interviewed people before who had attempted suicide and survived, but never one who stuck a 12-gauge shotgun under his chin, shot himself, and lived to calmly tell me about it. His comeback story of faith and fortitude went in to “The Book of Numbers” for AY About You magazine, and I was pleased to see it won and advanced to nationals.

“The Fire” for Do South magazine, which received honorable mention,  was another impactful interview. I met a family of four adult siblings in Fort Smith who, when they were kids, were saved from a house fire by a passer-by. The local hero disappeared into the community and remained unknown to them for decades until one of the siblings rediscovered him and arranged a reunion. The four kids had all grown up to have families and careers and grandkids of their own, and had he not done what he did that morning they might not have had the chance.  

What are your thoughts on APW celebrating its 75th anniversary?

I applaud the organization for this longevity, which is rare for any organized group or business, especially these days. It’s survived an awful lot of change and wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the dedicated, talented, and tough-as-nails women through the years who were determined to get their place at the table. My hat is off to them and to the group that continues to thrive today.

Do you have any advice for students that are interested in going into mass communications as a career? 

As a student, find any and all opportunities to write something outside of a school assignment and read twice as much as you write. Solid writing is a skill just like any other and there are fundamentals that you can learn from a book or other examples but only master by doing. Don’t try to be too cute off the start – nail the unsexy fundamentals of spelling, story structure, grammar, and punctuation first, your style will develop over time and with experience you will know when and where to let your own unique journalistic voice come to the surface. 

This type of skills progression will also help you develop into your own best editor. A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold, and I had some of the toughest, most brutally honest editors coming up, which made for a fantastic classroom. The writer who learns how to edit themselves, to tighten their words in pursuit of a better product, is a true professional. Column inches are prime real estate, learn how to use them as wisely and effectively as possible. A writer colleague of mine once gave me a wine glass inscribed with “Write drunk, edit sober” which, I think, captures the essence of how the two brain halves of every really good writer should work.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Your career in writing may not always take the form you want, or cover material you care deeply about, but every assignment is a chance to polish your skills so that when the really juicy stuff comes your way, you’re ready for it. This is particularly true for anyone thinking about living the life of a freelancer; there’s work everywhere, the question is do you have the skills, work ethic, temperament, and business chops (such as the ability to sell yourself) to land it. I have often said every piece I have ever produced is ultimately a resume – today’s 300-word piece on a blue-ribbon hog or a 250-word sidebar on changes in actuarial tables are key to landing tomorrow’s cover story. 

When I launched Ya!Mule, there were many people who wondered if this was the time in history to go all-in professionally on being a journalist. “Look at how print is dying,” they said, and on that point they were right. However, even as mediums change, there will always be a place for people who can harness words effectively, whether those words are ultimately spoken, posted, or printed. Clean copy turned in on time will never go out of style.