5 mistakes writers make when doing interviews, and how to avoid them

a retro-looking reporter taking notes during an interviewInterviewing someone for a story is difficult. Getting people to give you valuable, useful, interesting information in a colorful way is no small task. You need to ask good questions, follow up, take notes, as well as observe the environment and personal mannerisms.  It’s a lot to process, and it only gets harder when you make it difficult on yourself.  Here are five things I’ve learned to avoid that can help make interviews a lot better:

1. Don’t ask long, convoluted questions

Ever been to a big meeting or a lecture where an audience member stands up, and instead of asking a direct question, rambles incoherently for two minutes, then finally asks something like, “what do you think about that?”  Don’t be that guy.  Nothing makes me cringe more than listening to an interview I did and hearing myself launch a long, windy question that takes a full minute to unravel.  It’s rare that such questions need to be that long:  usually it’s just a rambling statement or observation with the real question appended to the end of it.  The interview shouldn’t be about you or your impressions (that’s what your story is for); the interview needs to focus on your subject.  Keep the questions short, clear, and open-ended.

2. Don’t think! Listen.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made during interviews is being so busy thinking of my next question or how a quote will fit in my story that I miss or neglect to follow-up on something interesting that a subject reveals.  When I listen to recordings of interviews, I’m often baffled that a subject might say something like “I haven’t talked to my father in more than ten years,” and I’ll not even respond or ask him to explain; instead, I move on to an unrelated next question.  A obvious, but difficult skill when interviewing is to concentrate on listening to your subject so that you take advantage of new information he or she presents, rather than robotically taking notes and walking through a list of pre-conceived questions.

3. Don’t marry yourself to weak interviews

Sometimes I’ve scored an interview with a famous person or a highly regarded expert, but when we finally talk, what they say isn’t particularly interesting. Or maybe an interview is interesting and insightful, but turns out to be a poor fit for the focus of the story.

Years ago, while working on a story, I interviewed about six fathers who took paternity leave.  One of them, an old friend, had lots of interesting things to say about the challenges of being on his own with the kids. But when I listened to the recording of the interview, it became clear that he was talking about the challenges of being a stay-at-home father, not about taking paternity leave from work. It might have been useful for a different story, but didn’t really fit this one.  Yet I didn’t cut it.  I didn’t want to give up on the great interview I had with him, even though it wasn’t right for the story.

Sometimes hard-sought interviews just don’t warrant being used in a final story. It’s hard to accept that you might have emailed back and forth with someone eight times, talked for an hour, written up notes on the interview, and yet it has no place in your story. Interviews need to support or develop the key ideas and themes of a story.  If they don’t, they need to go.

4. Don’t write down long quotes; write down times

When someone delivers a fantastic quote, you can get lost trying to jot it down word for word.  Odds are, while you’re doing that, you’re missing something else.  Instead of writing down quotes verbatim, jot down a short snippet of the quote and the time marker for when it he or she said it.

For example, for a recent story, an Afghanistan war veteran told me about teenage students he knows who have no memory of America before it was at war. “Because it’s been there for as long as they can remember, it’s just a fact of life,” he said. Nice quote.  In my notes taken during the interview, I wrote “’just a fact of life’… 7:30” — a quick reminder of the quote, plus the note that he said it seven and a half minutes into the interview. This approach has two benefits.  First, it allows you to focus on what you’re subject is saying more than trying to write out that juicy quote.  Second, when you’re working on a deadline, it will be a lot easier to locate that quote in your recording because you know exactly where to find it.  Odds are, no matter how well you took notes, you’ll need to go back and make sure you wrote it down correctly.

5. Don’t trust your batteries

It doesn’t matter if you think your batteries should be fine; Murphy’s Law says that if you’re doing an interview with a recording device, it will run out of juice at the wrong time.  ALWAYS put new (or freshly-recharged) batteries into your recorder before every interview.  Even if you don’t lose your interview, you don’t want be asking your subject to wait while you switch batteries.  And always have a few backup batteries on hand, just in case.

Writing for peanuts?

Linda Formichelli at the Renegade Writer blog posted an interesting piece on “writing for peanuts“: freelancers working for sites like Associated Content and… um, Examiner.com.

Interesting discussion of some of the arguments and bad logic about freelancers who sell themselves shows and work for pennies. She does an effective demolition of many arguments many freelancers (myself included) use when publishing work for cheap, or nothing. One pretty biting line:

Take my word for it — no editor of a market with decent rates is going to take a clip from a content mill seriously. There are no barriers to entry — practically anyone can post their writing — and even if you write a stellar article (which I’m sure you will), it will be surrounded by lazy reporting, bad writing, and unprofessional presentation.

Her argument resonates with me, especially since I’ve recently cut back my efforts writing for examiner.com. It can be fun and make a little money, but ultimately, the hourly rate for the work is close to nothing, and the upside of exposure is very limited. I’ve done some work there that I’m proud of, but over time, it’s not the most productive venue to write.

Time and effort is better spend pitching bigger markets.

Point taken, Linda: aim higher.

Nieman Conference: Wrap Up

Nieman Conference LogoI’m back from Boston now, after my second Nieman Conference. Overall, another really impressive, well-run event. Kudos to everyone at the Nieman Foundation for putting on a fine conference.

A few quick closing thoughts:

Books I want to buy now, based on what I saw in Boston:

A few overall impressions from the conference:

  • Journalists are in a rough spot right now. Issues involving the collapsing newspaper business and the seemingly shrinking prospects for good, meaningful journalism kept coming up. It was the elephant stomping through the Boston Sheraton. I will remember Connie Schultz‘s words to the people in the hall: “The business model is broken. You are not broken.”
  • I’m an experienced, professional web and multimedia designer who wants to do more writing. I found myself surrounded by lots of experienced, professional writers who want to do web and multimedia. Maybe we can meet in the middle someplace?
  • Most journalists and writers seems to genuinely love what they do. Often, they make financial sacrifices to stay in their careers, but few seem to regret it. A lot of conferences feel cold and formal, with people milling about, shaking hands, handing out cards, trying awkwardly to seem excited to be there. Not here. Most of the people I met were passionate and excited about their work, getting better, and learning from others. That’s the kind of people I like to be around.

I hope to be back in 2010…

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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Three

I kicked off day three in the session on “Animating History,” featuring a panel including Adam Hochschild, Jane Kamensky, Isabel Wilkerson, and Scott Martelle.

I loved the idea from Isabella Wilkerson that an important part about figuring out who to focus on for a book (or story) is the process of “auditioning” subjects through interviews, trying to find the right characters that will help carry a strong story. The interviews with the people you wind up not focusing on isn’t wasted; you often learn a lot about the background of the topic that you can later use. It’s still great research that can help shape your work.

Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild

Hochschild made a simple point that when choosing a subject for a big piece of historical writing, you need to “fall in love” with the topic. If you aren’t fascinated by it, passionate about it, it will be a lot harder to commit the long hours (maybe years) it will take to complete the work. “It has to obsess you,” Hochschild says.

Random side note: Hochschild is everything I’d like to be when I grow up… He writes, speaks, and teaches for a living. More fundamentally, he’s eloquent, graceful, passionate about his work…

From the world of exploring history through writing, I moved on to the session on modern-day writing for profit: “Freeing Your Inner Entrepreneur: Learning survival instincts in the freelance world” with Larry Habegger, Jennifer Kahn, Marci Alboher, moderated by Christine Larson.

The panel was very strong. All four speakers brought different perspectives to the business of freelance work. Kahn, a former astrophysicist, does long-form freelance science writing for major publications like Wired and New Yorker, often having months to work on each publication. Larson seems to have a more varied set of freelance clients, and does a lot of shorter pieces; her ideas focused more on the practical side of drumming up and sustaining business, as well as facing the cold, serious numbers involved in making a living as a freelancer. Habegger and Alboher were the entrepreneurs of the panel, each juggling multiple projects and ventures as freelancers. The panel showed that if you want to be a freelancer, there are a lot of different approaches.

Marci Alboher

Marci Alboher

Alboher’s idea of “slash careers” is an interesting concept, especially for someone like me, who does both freelance writing and design. One of my goals leaving the conference is to read her book, One Person/Multiple Careers. It’s refreshing to see someone embrace the idea that some of us aren’t crazy for feeling strange doing just one thing. Alboher also mentioned how invaluable having a small, regular “freelance group” was to her earlier in her career. She and some likeminded writers met weekly, swapping ideas, reading each others work, providing edits and suggestions. Seems like another great idea I want to run with after the conference.

Gwen Ifil was the closing keynote speaker for the conference. She seemed just as polished as she does on TV, but also showed more of a sense of humor than comes across on Washington Week in Review. One fun anecdote; She described how earlier in her career, she would typically be assigned to whichever candidate was doing the worst in the presidential primaries. If a candidate saw her at their event, they knew their campaign was in big trouble.

Following the official end of the conference, there were a series of “master classes.” I’d gotten into a session on writing profiles. The master class had a nice format: only about ten people, with one instructor, for a 90 minute session. Our instructor was Rose Moss. At first, I was a bit puzzled with her leading a session on profiles, since she seems to be primarily a fiction writer. Moss spoke slowly, but had some insightful things to say. When doing a profile, she advised, ask yourself “what does this person do that expresses who they are?” Following on that idea, she showed us a selection from a Tracy Kidder story in which Kidder walks along a cliff with his subject, who stops and says:

From here the amount of land the dam had drowned seemed vast. Still gazing, Farmer said, “To understand Russia, to understand Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Boston, identity politics, Sri Lanka, and Life Savers, you have to be on top of this hill.”

Moss suggested that when we write profiles, we try to find a similar spot for our subjects. As she put it, “Every person has something that crystallizes how they see the world, the lens they use to see the world.” The key to a great profile, she suggested, was finding that lens and writing about it.

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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day Two, P.M.

Over lunch, a bunch of strangers and I tried to figure out how to save the newspaper business. We didn’t succeed in finding a solution, but the brownies were quite tasty.

For the first afternoon session, went to “Conversation on Craft” on Magazines. The conversation focused on this powerful feature story from the New Yorker: The Last Tour by William Finnegan. Interesting session, from which my biggest take away is that William Finnegan is a hell of writer.

The second afternoon session was a tough call. I wanted to attend five of the seven sessions, but ultimately wound up in Tom French’s talk on “getting organized, mapping a story, finding a structure.” This handout is a great summary. Again, I was really impressed with Tom French. A few interesting tidbits you won’t find on the handout:

  • Cover of 'D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics'The best book on structure, according to French, is the D.C. Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Seriously.
  • Readers are smarter and more open to new approaches than we think. Reader are often ready for a lot more than editors and writers expect. The conventional wisdom about what they read or won’t read is often wrong. Sometimes, you can bury the lede and the world wont come to the end…
  • Even great writers often think their work sucks, especially when their working on it. It is common, he says, to be frequently “fighting off panic and terror.” “It’s good to be scared,” French says. “That means that you’re pushing yourself.”
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Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day One

At the Nieman Conference, everyone talks about “storytelling.” It’s what most writers here aspire to, rather than everyday news journalism. So when I walked into the main hall for the Connie Schultz keynote address, the story of the state of the journalism industry was told in the size of the room itself. The welcome and keynote was in the same hall as last year, but a room divider had been added. There were still hundreds of people, but by the looks of it, about half as many as in 2008. Schultz’s speech was great, but the welcome session felt, at times, like a funeral.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Schultz shared some inspirational stories and encouragement for writers. “Being scared,” she said, “sometimes is a really good thing.” I wasn’t familiar with Schultz, a Pulitzer -Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but I’m a fan now. She blended personal stories with professional insights and humor. She talked about her father, a working-class man who hated his job and once said to her “you could teach a monkey to do what I do,” and how he dreamed of giving his daughters the life he didn’t have. I almost teared up. (Being a new father tends to make me a sucker for fatherhood stories). She closed with a word of encouragement to the audience, some of whom lost their jobs in the past year: “Every narrative has a beginning, middle, and an end… including yours.”

The fact that I’m here, at this conference, trying to reinvent myself as the writer I always should have been, is a testament to that idea.

Tom French

Tom French

The first session I attended was “Narrative Archaeology” with Tom French. As I expected, having seen French last year, it was a great session, filled with practical tips and techniques for doing narrative journalism. French, another Pulitzer Prize winner, recently left the St. Petersburg Times to take a job teaching journalism at Indiana University. His departure from daily journalism is sad, but also makes sense: He’s a natural teacher, with a tremendous conversational style and a wealth of experience as a feature writer and editor.

His handout, “Hunting and Gathering” (PDF) covers some key ideas about the how to report for good featuring writing. Here are a few of the best gems from his presentation that didn’t make the handout:

  • When trying to do narrative on deadline, “choose a scene and zoom in tight
  • When in doubt, under-explain” (let your readers put the piece together; they’re usually smarter than we expect)
  • French says that after reporting for a story, he typically has ten times as much content as he can use. How to select what makes the cut? Make a “greatest hits” list: quotes, scenes, details that you would “die” if they didn’t make the story, and start from there. Most likely, he notes, even all of those won’t make it.

Next, I attended Walt Harrington’s session on “Intimate Journalism: How to go from “sources in a story” to characters who reveal the human condition.” While I have tremendous respect for Harrington as a writer, this session was disappointing. Harrington was the opposite of French: formal, scripted, and, it seemed to me, somewhat aloof. For the first half of it, Harrington basically read from a prepared speech on the merits of deep, sophisticated narrative journalism and how hard it is. It was an interesting piece that I’d like to read, but I’d rather he had talked more informally about his process and how he learned to do his work. The Q&A that followed his speech was a little more interesting.

Harrington is skeptical that anyone can become a good narrative journalist by taking workshops and reading about techniques. Instead, he argues, you have to “learn to do it only by doing it.” His other simple suggestion, other than years of experience and hard work, is that if you want to be a good nonfiction writer, you need to read a lot of good nonfiction. I think he’s right on all of this, of course, but it still would have been helpful to hear more stories and examples of the lessons he learned along the way of becoming a great writer himself.

After that, I roamed around the reception for a bit (I’m terrible at these things), ate crackers, and met Modou Nyang, who came all the way from Gambia to attend the conference. Very nice guy. Made the trip from D.C. seem like a short walk…

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