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.

Five ways to make writing harder than it needs to be

Man with his head on a deskThe more I write, the more I notice myself repeating the same mistakes during the writing process, bad habits that waste time and energy. Since I’m often short on both, it’s worth being aware of those pitfalls and trying to avoid them. Maybe others have the same issues.

1. Writing without a map

Perhaps if you write novels or short stories, or if you happen to be a genius, you can just sit down at a keyboard and compose a story without knowing where you’re going. For me, that’s a plan for getting lost and wasting time. I don’t need to have a detailed outline of a story in order to start writing, but I tend to be much more effective when I jot down a basic structure of the story, a loose idea of where key elements of my story — interviews, research, and quotes — will wind up. All of this is subject to change of course, but without a basic map to follow when writing a first draft, I’ve found myself going in circles or drifting off into wordy tangents that don’t advance the story.

2. Stopping to sweat the small stuff

My best work comes when I can concentrate and write, uninterrupted, for a few hours at a time. I get into a flow, and suddenly, the ideas and the words flow together well. I’m better able to think about the broader arguments and themes I’m trying do develop, and the smaller parts of a story come together to develop that. Sadly, that experience is rare. More often, I write in herky-jerky bursts: ten or fifteen minutes on the subway, half an hour during lunch, or an hour or so late at night or before dawn. When I do get the rare stretch to work for a few hours, too often, I sabotage myself with constant interruptions: email, Facebook, sports scores. But worst of all is when I stop to do micro-research instead of staying focused on the writing.

An example: last week while working on a story, I wrote this line: “Right now, [???] American troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.” I didn’t know the number, though I had a rough idea. Instead of leaving that blank spot there and coming back later to fill it in, I clicked away to the web and spent 15 or 20 minutes trying to dig up and confirm an accurate number. By the time I was done with that – stopping along the way to check my email, Facebook, and the Lakers score – and tabbed back over to my word processor, I’d completely lost my train of thought. Whatever groove I’d gotten in was lost. Researching facts and figures is important, but often, they can wait until later in the writing process. Every time I minimize my word processor, stop writing, and start focusing on something else, I lose the focus and concentration it takes to do my best work. Life gives us enough interruptions as it is; we don’t need to create our own distractions.

3. Spending too much time on the opening

Here’s an unscientific chart of the amount of time I often spend on a typical ten-page story:

Hours spent writing and editing a story, by page

One of my most common mistakes is spending an inordinate amount of time on the beginnings of stories:  editing, revising, and rewriting them endless times, while giving later pages a fraction of that attention. Instead of getting a good complete draft on the paper, I obsess about the first 300 or 400 words, to the detriment of everything that follows.

4. Over-reporting

I pride myself on doing thorough reporting and research. Many writers I admire say that they report and research as much as they can, then wind up using a small sliver of what they found. But too often, it’s easy to lose valuable hours digging too deeply into part of a story that’s not essential to the core focus. For example, in a recent feature I worked on about war video games, a related issue to the story was a recent Supreme Court case. I watched the arguments over the case live, then printed and read half a dozen briefs. It was all very interesting, but much more depth than I needed for my article. When I wound up scrambling to finish my draft of the story, I rushed the writing of the final few pages, which were clearly the weakest part of the finished piece. In retrospect, those hours I spend reading and marking up long legal briefs were critical hours of writing time I wish I’d had back. Good reporting is one thing; burning up hours of time on questionably relevant research is just inefficient. The lesson? Good reporting is essential, but always keep the final story in mind. Ask yourself how essential each angle of research is to the core ideas and themes of the story.

5.  Letting darlings live

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch offered this famous bit of advice: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” William Faulkner later shortened this advice to “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Elmore Leonard offered a similar take in more modern times with this simple rule: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” What they’re all saying is that it’s easy to become too attached to a bit of writing that seems clever or “beautiful.” And often, that favorite little chunk of writing needs to go.

In my writing, this most often is a scene or a moment I think I’ve described well, but which starts to seem out of place with the rest of the story. Or it’s a line where I repeat an idea I’ve already expressed, only in some more clever way. It’s repetitive, but I can’t see that because the second line is seems so brilliant. Eventually, I usually bring myself to evict my darlings from a story and relocate them io a designated “outtakes” file. Somehow this doesn’t seem as final. In the 21st century, darlings never really die, they just move on to someplace else.

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.

Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.

The stories we tell

Nate, David, and Ruth in a screenshot from Six Feet UnderOne of my favorite shows of all time was Six Feet Under. What made the show so great was that, even though every once in a while something extraordinary happened, most of the drama came from every day life decisions: where to go to school, whether to stay in a relationship, or when to change careers. The show was compelling because the narrative of every day lives doesn’t lack for drama. We all make decisions that might not matter to the rest of the world, but matter a lot to us.

The more I read, study, and think about narrative, the less is seems to do with writing. Narrative is about storytelling, and storytellers are everywhere: sports announcers, radio talk show hosts, car salesmen, speed daters. Everyone spins a story – yours or theirs – and creates a narrative about what happened or what will happen. The Bears lost because they got sloppy. Obama won because he gave people hope. The new iMac will make your life easier.

And when we tell stories about ourselves, we reveal our character: who we are or how we’ve changed. People tell these stories all the time, consciously or not, to define themselves to others.

When I was still single, I would often tell my “worst date” story to women I was out with for the first time. The “worst date story” recounted a nightmarish date I had just one summer when I was still in college: I was invited to a woman’s home for dinner and I proceeded to accidentally drop and shatter her blender, destroy her telephone, and spill food all over her dining room floor. Afterward, I tried to make up for my clumsiness by taking her out for dessert. On the way, I stopped for gas. After filling up the tank, I left the nozzle in the tank of my car and drove off, breaking the nozzle. The cashier ran after me, screaming and flailing his arms like he was on fire. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the damage and didn’t have a credit card. This was before the debit card era, so the three of us – me and my date in the front, the Iranian gas station attendant in the backseat – drove a few miles down Wilshire Boulevard to my bank, where I took out $100 to pay for the broken nozzle. We returned to the gas station to drop off the cashier and get a receipt and sign a few papers. And then we got ice cream.

I loved to tell this story on first dates for three reasons: first, it made my dates laugh; second, it showed them I didn’t take myself too seriously and could laugh at myself; and third, our date was bound to be much better in contrast.

Often, people share one major, defining narrative, a story that they feel defines their lives. As John Barth wrote, “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

The American defining narrative is simple: we were a bunch of scattered colonists living under British rule, but we came together and demanded freedom and independence. Our unity helped us not only to beat the British, but to grow into a large, prosperous nation. That founding narrative, boiled down to five words – we fought to be free – provides the backbone for much of American politics. Land of the free. Home of the brave. It defines what we think we are supposed to be.

My brother’s defining narrative – I’ve heard it many times over the years – goes something like this: when he and his wife got engaged, they decided to quit their jobs, move to San Francisco, and start a new life there. Their parents were shocked and told them it was reckless. They went anyway. No jobs. No place to live. No savings. Rising debt. But they believed in themselves. And soon, my brother found a great job and his wife opened a photography studio in their loft apartment. They were happy. Stressed, but happy. The job my brother found established his reputation as a dynamic, smart professional and helped him later become one of the youngest Senior Vice Presidents in the history of Disney. They moved back to Los Angeles, built a home and a family, richer from the risks they took.

Their story says the following: they weren’t afraid of risk and change, and in turn, they succeeded. It is a narrative that defines not only their relationship, but how they look at life. For them, as my sister-in-law likes to say, “change is good.” Risk is good. Believing in themselves brings success. It’s not just a story, it’s an outlook on life.

All of these examples remind me that the storytelling process is natural and intuitive. We tell stories every day, and our stories have underlying themes and meaning. But writers often go out of our way to make the process difficult and complicated. We tend to overthink things and try to invent new ways to do something that we already do all the time. We try a little too hard to construct “gotcha” ledes and memorable closing lines, rather than focusing more on the story that flows in between.

Writing: An “elitist” career?

Dana Goldstein, a former CAP co-worker who now writes for The Amercan Prospect, put up a post on “Journalism’s Elitism Problem.” In short, she points out that the career path for many professional writers involves four years of college education (and any debt that comes with that) followed by unpaid (or barely paid) internships, which leads to the relatively low-paying jobs in journalism. The result: a pool of would-be writers narrowed down, most often, to the wealthy, white elite who can afford it:

The average student-debt burden in the United States is $23,186. Believe it or not, that’s also a typical entry-level salary at a “thought leader” magazine. It is economically irrational for a highly educated person with that level of debt to choose journalism over law, consulting, advertising, or public relations. That’s not to say journalists don’t have student debt — many do. But it’s a difficult, sometimes discouraging slog, and you have to truly love this work.

Goldstein also points out that these barriers lead to a very selective group of people who can afford to work in the field of journalism, which in turn, affects the ideas and perspectives that dominate journalism:

It’s not hugely shocking that journalism has evolved into a career with significant entry barriers, one of which is the unpaid internship. This makes the profession whiter, wealthier (in terms of family wealth; salaries remain modest), and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class. While journalism was once a career that didn’t require a college degree, today it is highly elitist and dominated by graduates of selective colleges. In some fields, like political “think” journalism, the Ivy League schools are grossly overrepresented. (Yep, that includes me. I went to Brown.)

Her argument is spot-on, and helps explain why major outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times so often seem to reflect a very narrow spectrum of opinion and ideology. It’s not a conspiracy or a sinister plot, but the major media wind up dominated by white, affluent Americans. Goldstein offers some policy ideas —- student loan reform and lower tuition — to try lower some of the barriers to a more diverse newsroom, though I suspect such changes are unlikely in the near future.

I know from my own experience that the barriers can be daunting. After graduating from college, I carried a huge amount of debt, so the possibility of an unpaid internship or even taking an entry-level journalism job someplace seemed unthinkable. Years later, when my writing itch persisted, I applied to journalism grad programs at Northwestern and Columbia, got accepted to both, but ultimately opted not to go when I stared down the astronomical tuition costs. I couldn’t fathom piling new debt on top of old debt, aware of the low salaries and unstable job prospects that awaited. Maybe I was a coward, but I blinked and didn’t go.

I’m fortunate enough to come from a relatively affluent middle class family and benefited from a fine education. And the unconventional path to a career in writing is a challenge. I’m still on the outside, looking in, fogging up the window. Yet I’m reminded that if it’s tough for me, how much steeper is the hill for someone who hasn’t had it as easy?

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.