December 13, 2010
Not that kind of action.
Rather, the details and nuances gathered in an interview that make a story’s subjects actors, not just talkers. Francis Flaherty, an editor at The New York Times, discusses this concept in his book, The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing.
When planning for an inteview, it’s easy to get too focused on getting strong quotes. However, Flaherty encourages writers to see interview subjects as more than talking heads. “Getting an actor acting is best. A reasonable second best is to get an actor talking,” Flaherty said.
So if you’re writing a story about a coupon-crazed mom, the best place to interview her would be at the grocery store as she storms the aisles with her shopping cart and coupon notebook. The next best situation would be to meet up with her and ask about her shopping strategies.
But what if you have to conduct the interview over the phone? This is the most common inteview scenario for me, but I’d like to think there are still ways I can draw more sensory details from these blind conversations.
Here are a few strategies I plan to try in future phone interviews.
- Ask to talk while the interviewee is doing something else. Continuing with the example above, this would mean asking the couponista if I could call her during her grocery run. This would give me the chance to hear the ruffle of her coupons, how long it takes her to find the items on her list, and maybe even snippets of her conversation with other shoppers and the cashier.
- Use Skype when possible. It might not work in the previous example, but for sit-down phone interviews, why not add video? Seeing interview subjects’ expressions and appearance would undoubtedly provide me with a more accurate understanding of their responses.
- Ask for pictures and videos. If I managed to secure an interview with the coupon mom while she was at the grocery store, it would still be better if I could see her. Perhaps her teenager could go along with a camera and take pictures or video while we’re talking. It does seem like asking a lot, but with all the easy-to-use technology available, there’s no harm in asking.
- Listen for emotion. While it’s always been there in my phone interviews, I think I could do a better job of observing the tone and rythm of my subjects’ responses. Then, I could try to better represent these details through the way I punctuate and present quotes.
Fellow writers, any ideas for beating the limitations of a phone interview?
October 18, 2010
jenna glatzer, magazine writing
A must-read for aspiring magazine writers.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I planned to read Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer: How to Win Top Writing Assignments by Jenna Glatzer. It’s been almost two months, and I’m still toting this book around.
I appreciate this book because Glatzer focuses solely on writing for magazines. I’ve found other books in this genre to be far too general, glazing over every possible market for a freelance writer and failing to provide practical ways to break in any of them.
Glatzer advocates for magazine writing in an honest way. She wrote, “It’s easier to earn money writing copy for businesses–brochures, sales letters, press releases, and so on–but let’s face it, would you rather tell your friends that your byline is in this month’s People magazine, or that you’re responsible for the latest junk mail they just tore up?” (3-4).
Just like other business owners and investors, writers face the tension between risk and reward. In my experience, it takes more time, creativity, and bravery to seek a magazine assignment than it does to look for a copywriting job. However, the exhilarating experience of writing about people and ideas that you believe are important and seeing them make it to publication is worth every moment of grunt work and anxiety.
I connected immediately with Glatzer’s perspective on conducting business as a freelance writer. “The day you decided to be a freelance writer was the day you became a small business owner. Your words are your products, and you’re putting a dollar value on your flair for putting these words together,” Glatzer said, adding, “…a key to financial success is your ability to see yourself as an entrepreneur with valuable products to sell” (10). Throughout the book, she emphasizes communicating professionally with editors and interviewees, understanding legal issues, and negotiating for better contracts.
Because of the book’s tight focus, Glatzer had plenty of pages to unload detailed advice and real-life examples covering every stage of the magazine writing process: generating ideas, finding and studying markets, understanding the nuts and bolts of a typical magazine’s contents, pitching ideas, negotiating contracts, selling reprints, interviewing subjects, becoming a favorite freelancer, and more. She includes tons of websites and other resources to investigate (However, a few of the links have gone bad and some sites are outdated.).
The bottom line? If you want to write for magazines and have no idea how to get started, this book will arm you with everything you need to know before making your first pitch and serve as a faithful resource as you go through the process for the first time.