Getting Action during Phone Interviews

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The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction WritingNot 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?

My Security Book

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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.

Webinar Review: Freelancing for More Money

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Last Wednesday, Writer’s Digest offered a free webinar titled, “Freelancing for More Money,” which was hosted by Eric Butterman.

The webinar lasted a short 30 minutes, but Butterman offered some useful tidbits in that time for aspiring freelance magazine writers. These are my favorite pieces of his advice.

No clips? No problem.

If you’re sending out a query, but have no published clips to enclose, Butterman suggested creating a website and self publishing content. Then, you can include a link to the site in your query. (Note: Butterman only referenced e-mail queries throughout the webinar, which seemed to indicate that he feels mail queries are obsolete.) For example, if you want to start writing for a business magazine, create a business-focused site, and start posting your related articles there until you find a paying platform for your work.

Follow up by telephone.

Butterman spent several minutes emphasizing the importance of making a follow-up call a week or two after you’ve submitted a query. He treated it as a matter of necessity and good business. He also advised not to let the call go longer than two minutes and not to call too frequently.

Be a frogemploy the Lily Pad Theory.

Butterman introduced an idea he calls the Lily Pad Theory. If writing with this theory in mind, you should be able to hop around to many different lily pads, or magazine categories, with the same article. Butterman identified health, entertainment, business, technology, and travel as the most far-reaching categories. So in other words, a hybrid article that touches on more than one of the major categories will be the right fit for a greater number of magazines and has a better chance of selling and selling again. If you typically write only for sports magazines, you could apply the Lily Pad Theory by writing a piece about sports-centered vacations. Then, your article would be appealing to both sports and travel magazines.

Two articles will do.

Toward the end of his presentation, Butterman made an encouraging remark: you’re just two articles away from having the credits you need to attach to a strong query and get more assignments in that category. After the first two articles, you’re a proven success, and you can seek assignments from similar, higher paying publications.

I was quite pleased to receive this much constructive advice from one free and quick webinar. I only wish it had been longer!

Writing for Demand Studios

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I used to turn to www.eHow.com when I needed to know how to cook an exotic food item, like cassava root. Now, I write for the site.

Demand Studios (which is part of a wider organization called Demand Media) is a content creation company that produces articles for websites like LIVESTRONG.COM, eHow.com, USAToday.com and Trails.com. They also produce videos and claim to be the largest contributor of video content to YouTube. The company stands out from competitors like Associated Content by “developing titles that [they] know users are interested in” and hiring freelance writers and editors to produce those titles.

I found out about writing for Demand Studios through a job posting on craigslist for Houston. I gave it a try because it’s completely free to apply, not an extremely binding work arrangement, and one of the few ways you can write online content of your choice with pay (practically) guaranteed. (Blogging, unfortunately, does not offer this benefit.)

The application process is simple and quick. It involves completing a short online form and attaching your résumé and a writing sample. They sent me an e-mail acceptance the next day.

I immediately had access to a wealth of getting-started resources from Demand Studios, including orientation materials, editorial guidelines, sample work, and the community forum.

On the information page for writers, Demand Studios explains the process.

“Once you are approved, writing for Demand Studios is easy. First, claim titles you want to write by searching within categories or sites you are interested in. These titles are yours alone and you have seven days to submit the completed article. After review and fact checking by a copy editor, your article is published and payment is processed.”

They pay you through PayPal twice a week (Friday and Tuesday), if you write and submit that frequently. Although it depends on the sites for which they approve you to write, my experience has been that you can earn $7.50 to $15 per article. (I’m approved to write for www.eHow.com and www.answerbag.com.) The payment price usually corresponds with the required word count.

Initially, I was able to claim three titles. For those articles, they paired me with senior editors who could quickly teach me Demand Studio’s editorial expectations. After my first three were accepted, my claim limit went up to 10 titles at a time.

After about a month of writing for Demand Studios, here’s what I like about it.

  • I feel pretty certain that I’ll get paid for every article—no rejections yet.
  • I can write as much or as little as I want depending on how much time I have.
  • I get to hear from editors personally and track the changes that they’re making to my articles.
  • I can select an article, write it, go through the editorial process, and get approved in one day.
  • The high-quality resources are helping me improve my writing skills.

My only complaint so far is that I’ve had some difficulty finding appealing titles to claim. Many of the titles are obscure (e.g., How do I fix my Black & Decker Lawn Mower Model LMNOP?). So some days, I’ve spent a good amount of time searching for titles and put it down without claiming anything. Other days, I find a title that fits my interests and experience perfectly (e.g., How High Should a Ballet Barre Be?).

I would definitely recommend the Demand Studios writing experience to any writer who has extra time and enjoys researching and writing short, informational pieces. If you want to give it a try, start here.

First Comes Research

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One of the first goals I’ve set is to educate myself about the business of writing. Being a relentless hunter and gatherer of information, I eagerly scooped up three titles from Amazon.

I chose these titles based upon Amazon’s reviews and with the intention of hearing from a cross-section of perspectives. I noticed many of the books available have something to do with earning a fortune in their titles, which initially perturbed me. I didn’t want to read anything that made it seem like freelance writing is a get-rich-quick scheme. We all know that’s completely bogus, or more people would be tapping into the easy money. These three, it seemed, would teach me all about entrepreneurial writing–from the fantastic aspects to the devastating ones. Hopefully, I selected these titles wisely.

I’ve read the first few chapters of Glatzer and Bly’s books so far. Both of the authors speak about writing for magazines and related markets (journalistic media) and for businesses (organizational media). However, they clearly have favorites. Glatzer recommends writing for business only as a way of earning supplemental income, while Bly suggests journalism only as a creative outlet. They unanimously acknowledge that business writing is the way to earn top dollar.

But, I’ll hold the rest of my comments about these books until after I’ve finished them. In the meantime, I’ll probably explore some of the websites they recommend visiting and share my experiences there.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has read these books or something similar. What did you learn? Was the book worth your time and money?

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