April 2011


Whether I’m interviewing a physician, community organizer, or business owner, my goal is to conduct a good interview, which means that I need to do my research.  Before an interview I tend to read up on the basics and check to see if there’s anything new about my topic.  I tend to write health articles.  So, a quick online search using PubMed or Google Scholar may bring up some new research about my topic.  I also like to do a quick Google search on the expert, especially if a media relations contact provided me with the information; and by doing so I’ve found out information about the expert, such as a recently published paper or book he or she wrote that is also about the topic I’ll be discussing in the interview.

I do my best to try to cover all avenues when I’m preparing for an interview.  However, there can be some other issues that do come up.  And I realized that after a couple of interviews things don’t always go as smoothly as I anticipate them to.  Among these problems, here are the main interviewing mishaps I’ve encountered.

Voice Recording Drama

A few years ago, I was still using a tape recorder (I know, I know.  Don’t judge me), and on this particular day, I used it to interview a source about the work she was doing to restore landmarks and preserve natural spaces that would serve families in the community.  Well after such a great interview, I was really excited until I got home and began to listen to the tape.  Once I listened to the first few seconds my heart dropped–it was garbled.  I recalled that at one point during the interview, after glancing at the recorder, the tape appeared to be moving slowly and after quickly playing around with it. I continued with the interview.  Well, whatever I did seemed to do the trick because miraculously the rest of the recording was just fine.  Whew, that was a close one (and scary too)!

  • Solution: I went out and immediately bought an Olympus digital recorder (VN-5000).  So far I haven’t had any problems with this recorder and it has a great battery life, sound quality and slow-down feature when I’m transcribing.
  • Take Home Message: Shop around for a great recorder and ask other writers.  Also, check out the reviews on Amazon.com about recorders you’re interested in , which can be extremely helpful.  And use social media or forums to put your questions about voice recorders out there too.

Scheduling Changes

So I’ve had a few interesting scenarios when I get a call or an email from a source asking to speak earlier than our scheduled appointment.  And it’s worked out so I can be accommodating.  But there has been the occasional person who asks to reschedule many times.  I’ve also had times when I’ve been given a number to contact the source for the interview and he or she is MIA.  One time, a source’s assistant never even scheduled the appointment (I was taking deep breaths that day, let me tell you).

  • Solution: I’ve been interviewing many physicians.  So, my priority is to secure those interviews early on.  By doing this I give myself enough time to handle any changes like rescheduling because things happen.  If an expert constantly reschedules to the point where I’m concerned that the interview is not going to happen, I just thank him or her, mention my deadline is looming, and say that hopefully we’ll be able to work on a future article—which may or may not happen.  But the point is to always be professional even when things aren’t going your way.
  • Take Home Message: Once you get the go ahead on an assignment, work on getting your interviews scheduled.  And be flexible in your schedule and allow time to find other sources if scheduling problems occur.

Reeling in Runaway Interviewees

This type of interviewer has a tendency to veer off-course during interviews.  In the beginning, whenever I encountered runaway interviewees I was a bit nervous about interrupting them.  I felt that it would be rude to just interrupt someone while they were speaking.  So off they went leaving me to filter through a lot of information that didn’t really pertain to my article.  I realized I made the piece work with more effort than I needed too because I wasn’t assertive enough to enforce redirection when the interviewee went astray.

  • Solutions: When a subject is going off-course, I interject with a “That sounds great!” and then I try to piggyback by asking a question that ties in with what they’ve been saying back to my article, this usually works.  But for the harder, more talkative type this method may not apply.  So, I just redirect him or her to my specific question to stay on course.  One of the hardest interviewees for me tends to be the quick and to the point responder. It’s hard to gauge whether you’ll be interviewing someone with a larger-than-life personality or a more tight-lipped, terse type of individual.  For the chattier type, I tend to pose more specific questions to sway them back in the direction of my article. And for the more reserved interviewee, whose answers may be something I could have gotten from a textbook, I tend to do a bit of coaxing to draw out more explanatory responses.
  • Take Home Message: Be assertive and don’t let your source steer you away from your topic, stay in control.  However, conducting a good interview is also about balance.  So, don’t be so rigid that you don’t allow your source to talk a bit.  Sometimes when interviewees have answered my question I let them go on for a bit before moving on to the next question.  Doing so has gotten me some really great quotes, stories and new ideas.  Silence can be golden too during interviews.  It’s about feeling it out and knowing when it’s time to move on or wait a bit–you never know, you may get an idea for another story.

What are some interviewing blunders you’ve experienced, and what lessons have you learned from them?

I’m not tech savvy by any means.  For the past four years, I’ve been using a Nokia e61i that I was able to buy from an old colleague for a very reasonable price.  It was ideal because at the time I wasn’t interested in being tied down by a contract; but I’m not sure I used it to its fullest capacity. In any case, I’ve been using it up until last week when it finally had enough and conked out on me.  Well, I rushed on over to T-Mobile and upgraded to a Blackberry Bold 9780 based on what I told the customer service representative I would be doing with the phone, checking emails and surfing the Web, it seemed like a good fit.

My dilemma–I told her what I would be doing with my new phone based on what I have been doing for the past four years with an outdated mobile phone that is now surpassed by Androids and iPhones.  I’ve been playing around with the BB Bold, and it’s been great when it comes to checking my emails when I’m on-the-go, which had been painfully slow with the Nokia.  But  considering there’s 3G and 4G speeds out there and talks of the iPhone 5, which it’s still unclear when it’ll make its debut, I want to know: What makes your smartphone rock?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially regarding any apps that help with editing, writing, and social media.  I’ve also included a poll in this post  just to get an idea of what other writers/editors are using these days.  So feel free to vaunt all you want about your smartphone by taking the poll, dropping a line or both!

It’s crucial that you understand the rights you’re selling because they can be confusing.  But, it’s important for you to know what rights you’re giving up when you sell an article.  So, do your homework.  Because after you’ve submitted your wonderful pitch and it’s accepted you may find yourself in a bit of a dilemma, especially if you’re just starting out, on whether or not you should agree to certain rights.  And while negotiating may be an option, you can try to negotiate, but don’t expect editors to budge unless they’ve been working with you (some veteran writers may disagree and say, “Nope, I’ve been turned down flat while negotiating with an editor I’ve worked with before”).

As a brief introduction to the different rights you may come across, I’ve listed a brief summary of them here with the help of Mediabistro’s “Get a Freelance Life”.

First North American rights (FNA) are also called first North American serial rights (FNASR).  These rights mean that the publication will be the first to distribute your work anywhere within the US and Canada.  Your rights will be reverted back to you and the time frame depends on the publication.  For instance, a magazine may stipulate that your rights are returned to you three or four months after the article has first appeared.  The details vary from one publication to another.  But, most sources mention that FNASR are the most common type to be offered to writers in the US and it’s definitely the type you’ll want to sign off on.

Reprints are also known as second serial rights or nonexclusive reprint rights.  Reprints allow writers to resell their work after it has appeared elsewhere.  Look out for publications that offer reprint rights because it is a great way for writers to keep earning more money from previously published pieces.  Granted, you’ll most likely get paid less than you did for it originally. But, you’ll also be doing less work with your article (or short story) the second time around.

First serial rights are similar to FNASR with the exception that the publication is not limited by location.  You may see online publications using this in contracts.  Since web publications can be accessed anywhere in the world these rights will be applied.  But, don’t think it’s limited to just online publications.  Other printed publications distribute worldwide and may ask writers to sign off on these type of rights as well.

Onetime rights usually refer to works that are time sensitive.  Hot research findings, a new cure, a celebrity story to die for – you name it.  If the news is timely then getting it published may require you signing a onetime rights (also called simultaneous rights) contract.  A writer may sign off on onetime rights at various publications simultaneously.  Each publication usually targets a different audience.

All rights mean exactly that – you’re giving up all the rights to your work.  So, think wisely about this one.  If you are ever offered an all rights contract and negotiating for a FNASR is not an option then you need to think long and hard before you sign it.  Signing an all rights contract means that the publication now owns your work.  Yikes!

Electronic rights mean that the publication wants to have the right to publish your work on its website as well as in print.  Other variations of this include the distribution of your piece through online databases like LexisNexis, archiving for public access and more.  An interesting twist is that if you are asked to sign over your electronic rights alone then you will retain your right to sell your work to print publications.

If you’re unable to find the rights of the publication you’re dying to write for pick up the phone and ask the editorial assistant or check with fellow writers.  You may still decide to pitch an idea to a publication.  But the goal should always be to know the terms before you sell your article idea.  Click here for a more extensive list of publication rights.

The Internet is a phenomenal playground of information right at our fingertips.  However, using the Web ineffectively can slow you down, especially when you have better things to do like working on your article or novel.  It’s amazing how much time we lose when we allow the Web to steer us away from our writing priorities.  It’s so easy to switch over to the Internet to check out a fact, look up a word, or do some research—after all it’ll only take a few minutes, at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

Well, if you’re like me, getting distracted by the Web isn’t hard to do. Once my Web explorations cost me an hour, and I was nowhere near finishing that 2,000 word assignment.  But I wanted to fact check something I’d written and was certain that I’d seen the information in a journal article I read.   Rather than insert an “FC” (which I now use to denote information I need to fact check) and keep writing, I spiraled down into an hour’s worth of not only finding the article of interest, but also eyeing other articles that I found pertinent—and to make matters worse, I didn’t even use the extra information in my final article.

These days, I’m doing my best to stay focused on my writing without all the Web-related diversions.  And to help me do just that I’ve incorporated some ground – actually, virtual – rules when I’m in writer mode.  Check them out:

  1. Just write!  It’s a simple notion but very hard to do when an abundant source of information is just one click away.  But setting aside a specific time to just write allows me to stay focused on the task at hand.
  2. I’ve created an accountability writing schedule.  It’s a calendar that I created using Gmail and I share it with a few people who check in on my writing progress.
  3. To avoid checking facts and information online when I’m writing I’ve created shortcuts that I insert, one of them I mentioned already is “FC” (a fact check reminder).
  4. Most importantly, I keep my Firefox Web browser closed until I’m done writing.  I also used Mozilla Thunderbird and I shut down as well.

How do you get in the habit of building a steady, uninterrupted writing flow?

While I was interviewing an expert for my article, she provided me with an opportunity to interview someone who practiced this particular exercise routine I was writing about.  Understandably, I was only provided with the contact information after the source agreed to share her personal story with me.  But finding anecdotes this way hasn’t happened often for me.  And when it does, I’m always thankful.  Using ProfNet has also worked on occasion for me.

When it comes to pitching ideas, I may use my own experience to start off the query.  However, when it comes to writing the article, the editor most likely (unless it’s personal essay for the magazine) won’t want to use my personal story.  So, it got me thinking of other places I could use to find anecdotes.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

  • Family/Friends – This may not always fly with an editor, so I would suggest being forthcoming with him about who you plan to interview.  And maybe they’ll make an exception if the story is just that great. Another point to consider is that this is a personal relationship;  so, avoid drama by making sure your friend or family member knows that this story will be out there in black and white for all to see.
  • Bloggers – People blog about many things and keeping an eye out for bloggers who may fit the profile of a story you’re pitching is a good idea.
  • Social Networking – Are you LinkedIn?  Are you connected through Facebook or Twitter? Reach out to the pool of people your connected to online, they may be the key to you scoring a great story for your article.

Do you have any other ideas on where to find anecdotes?

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