When Your Interview Source is a Total Blowhard: 5 Survival Tips

by Carol Tice – 26 Comments

Blowhard interview source can't stop talkingIf you write articles and interview people, sooner or later, it’s going to happen: You’ll get an expert on the phone, and they’re a gabber.

You ask a question, and off they tear on some odd tangent that has nothing to do with your story. Or they simply can’t stop talking about their own greatness, or telling stories about the good old days of their business. Blah, blah, blah.

You feel like your brain is being sanded with heavy-grit sandpaper.

Your interview source takes up way more time than you had allotted, hurting your hourly rate. Worse, you hang up with the nagging feeling that you have reams of notes, but nothing useful for your article. You’ll have to call them back or find another source to finish your story!

To earn well as a freelance article writer, you’ve got to prevent this problem. I know, because I’ve written a ton of reported articles — over 1,000 pieces at just one of my two staff-writer jobs, and nearly all those assignments required interviews.

Just as a matter of survival, I’ve had to learn how to make blowhards get to the point, fast. Here are my five tips for staying in control of your interviews:

1. Set time limits

Blowhards are a lot like toddlers. They function better if you set expectations early.

If you forgot to say when you set the interview time, begin your chat by telling the source how much time you’ve got for them. Ordinarily, the answer should be 20 to 30 minutes.

That’s all the time you should usually need from a source who is one of several in a story. Only situation where you want to allot more time is if the person is the focus of a lengthy profile, where they are the main interview.

Remember, the longer you talk to sources, the more quotes they will expect to see by them in your article — so don’t set up false expectations.

I used this time-limit technique just this week, during an exclusive interview with the CEO of a major, newly public company that’s being sued. It quickly became clear he wanted an hour or more of my time to filibuster with his side of the story, in hopes of getting me to tilt the story in favor of the corporation’s point of view. As soon as I realized this, I broke in to tell them I’d have to go in 30 minutes.

Presto: They spit out the important info in the following five minutes, allowing me to get my story filed.

2. Ask your big question first

As soon as you peg your source as a blowhard, you need to look at your question list and prioritize ruthlessly. The moment they take a breath, leap in and ask your top question. Say:

“That’s fascinating…but first up, I have this one question I need to be sure we get to. Then we can get back to that topic you were just discussing. It’s this…”

Then ask it, real quick.

The assurance that they can return to their pet topic will usually jolly the blowhard into suffering to attend to your agenda, at least for a few minutes.

3. Guide them back on track

Some blowhards never seem to take a breath. If that’s the case, you’ve still got to break in and regain control of the interview.

Look for any opportunity to pipe up. Cough. Loudly drop the phone and then apologize for doing that, just to break their flow.

Then say:

“Yes, but if I may, I really need to bring this back around to the topic of X. I’ve got a few questions I must get answered for this story, and if it’s OK, I’d like to quickly ask them now. Then we can pick up the thread of Y.”

Even the most diehard blatherer will usually agree to that.

4. Make it in their interest

The trick to charming blowhards into focusing on the topic you want is making it seem like that’s good for them. Don’t focus on your needs. If they’re just rambling on, they may need a little training on how the interview process works best. Say:

“I’ll be able to showcase your opinions to best advantage in this story if I ask a few key questions up front, that you answer concisely. Then, if we have time, we can get into other areas of interest to you. I’d love to do that, as it gives me story ideas for future articles.”

The carrot that this chat might be leveraged for more than one article is usually an irresistible one for blowhards — after all, they’re talking to you because they’re in love with being quoted in publications.

5. Breathe and let go

Trying to interrupt the most hardcore blowhard may only make them ramble on longer. If you’ve got the time, sometimes it’s better to simply take deep breaths and let them tire themselves out.

Eventually, the blowhard will usually pipe up with, “Is that the sort of stuff you were looking for?” or words to that effect. That’s your chance to point out that you need a few other points covered and to return to your questions.

Quietly keep half an ear attuned while you do deep breathing exercises, pop a few mini-crunches at your desk, file your nails, scan email, or engage in other sanity-saving distractions, until you sense your opportunity to pop up with your question. Then, scratch this blowhard off your source list and don’t use them again.

How do you keep control of your interviews? Leave a comment and add your tips.

Never Run Out of Story Ideas by Asking This Quick Question

by Carol Tice – 25 Comments

Are good story ideas hard to find?freelance writer has lots of ideas

When you open up your favorite magazines, it can seem like other writers are always beating you to the interesting angles on a piece of news.

However, it’s not really true.

If you know where to look, you can always come up with fresh story ideas that other writers haven’t a clue about.

How do I know this? Because I used to have to come up with several story ideas every single week, as a staff writer. I needed enough good ideas to pitch that my editor would greenlight three of them. Each week.

Over time, I found one easy technique for turning up story ideas that I loved, and still use today. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it consistently yields unique slants that editors love.

Here’s how it works:

1. Talk to live humans

To begin, writers who consistently have a lot of great story ideas, do interviews.

They’re not just Googling around or reading press releases. They are getting fresh viewpoints from real people.

These people might be experts in a particular field. Maybe they’ve got a new book out on a topic that interests you. Or they’re a groundbreaking medical researcher or doctor. They might be business owners. They could be the head of an organization, association, or nonprofit.

Often, you will find yourself interviewing someone like this for an article you’re writing. If this isn’t happening to you, make it happen. Write something that involves experts for your own blog, if need be. But you want to start talking to experts to get good story ideas.

Stop guessing about what the latest trend is, the biggest breakthrough, the most unusual idea. Ask knowledgeable people and find out.

Then you won’t be starting at ground zero again, trying to develop your next article idea. You’ll already have it in your pocket, before you wrap up the article you’re writing now.

Ordinarily, with most articles you wind up interviewing some sort of expert, like the types I’ve just described. At the end of that interview is when you spring the question that will hand you your next idea.

2. Ask a final question

As you’re wrapping up your interview for your current topic, don’t just say, “Thanks, call you if I have any other questions.”

You want to ask one last question before you go.

That question takes many forms, but in essence, here is what you ask:

What’s next for you?

You want to get a little peek at the future from this source. Are they heading off to a conference, for instance? Publishing a book? Embarking on a research project? Meeting with their mastermind group? Headed to Capitol Hill to testify? Going on a round-the-world trip?

You might get a wide variety of answers to this question, and in my experience, they’re all leads to the next great story idea.

After you ask it, listen carefully to the answer. Then, take the next step:

3. Follow where it leads

Don’t just respond to their ‘what’s next’ news with, “Oh, that’s nice.” Instead, pick their brain about what they’re doing and why.

If they’re publishing a book, for instance, what’s it about? How long have they been working on it? Does it have any groundbreaking or explosive findings or news?

If it’s a conference, what are the panels going to be about? What are the hot topics in that industry that will be buzzed about in the hallways? The current controversies?

What’s their mastermind about? Who else is in it?

You get the picture.

Time after time, I’ve had this seemingly innocuous question lead to great new stories — often, more than one out of each conversation. For instance, one expert told me he was about to write a book about a once-in-a-decade update of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ forecasts for which jobs would grow most and pay best in the future, for instance.

Well, since I was covering careers and jobs at the time, getting unique analysis on what jobs would be great to have 10 or 20 years from now (versus trying to wade through BLS database tables myself and figure it out) was a slam-dunk story.

This final-shmooze question might also lead you to think of other markets you might sell a profile piece on this same expert. If your source mentions they’re headed to an alumni event, find out where they went to university — and then, pitch a profile of them to their alumni magazine. Presto, you can get two articles out of the same set of notes.

Often, like that career-forecast gem, the idea you’ll get won’t necessarily be something you can use immediately. That’s why there’s one final step to this idea-finding process:

4. Have an idea calendar

In the old days, we used to keep a physical ‘tickler file’ with a pocket for every day of the month, and we’d drop a note about upcoming ideas into the right day to remind us about it later. These days, you probably have an online tool you’d use to track them.

But save, stash, catalogue, or calendar that idea — and then pull it out to pitch when the time is right to pitch it around.

Ask enough experts that final question, and soon you’ll have a steady stream of interesting ideas filed and ready to go.

How do you find story ideas? Leave a comment and share your tip.


Are You An Ethical Article Writer? Not If You Do These 4 Things

by Carol Tice – 28 Comments

Unethical writer making a dealBy Linda Formichelli

You’re an ethical writer — right?

You don’t rip off other writers, you charge fair rates, and you deliver what you promise.

Surprise: If you you’re an article writer for magazines and newspapers, there’s more — way more — to journalistic ethics that you need to know.

If you unwittingly commit an ethical faux pas, you could put your freelance writing career at risk. I committed one of these sins myself, as you’ll see below, and was banned from writing for what was a great magazine market for me.

So trust me, you want to stay out of ethical trouble. How?

Here are the top four mistakes that can brand you as an unethical writer:

1. Showing the source your goods

You interview a key source, and he asks if you can send him a copy of the article when it’s finished. Being a nice writer, you’re probably inclined to say yes.

Then, the source returns your draft with so much red ink it looks like he sacrificed a goat on it. He’s “corrected” your grammar. He’s deleted quotes from an interviewee who doesn’t agree with him. He’s even changed his own quotes, so they go from sparkling to PR-speak.

This, my friends, is an ethical problem.

Generally, sources should not be given the chance to approve or edit your story. So when a source asks to see a copy of your article when it’s done, the correct thing to say is, “Let me ask my editor what the magazine’s policy is.” Then you ask your editor.

In most cases, the editor will tell you that’s a no-no. If that happens, ask your editor how they fact-check articles, or if you can check the article yourself by calling the source and running the facts by him.

That way, you can tell the source — who is probably just nervous about being misquoted — that although the editor said you can’t share the full article, a fact checker will be calling him, or you’ll be calling yourself to go over the details.

Sometimes, the editor will give you the go-ahead to send the article — and in the case of some trade and custom publications, may even require it. Then you can send away and know that you covered your butt.

2. Double dipping

Being a smart writer, you like to get the most out of your work. So when you get an assignment to write about small business marketing for a trade magazine, the first source who comes to mind is a copywriting client of yours who happens to be — ta daa! — a marketing consultant.

You save yourself some legwork, and your copywriting client loves you even more. In fact, he even offers to pay you for getting him placed in the magazine. Everyone’s happy!

Well, except your editor, when she finds out.

Being on the payroll of both the magazine and your source is called “double dipping,” and it’s unethical. It looks like you’re not choosing the best source for your article — you’re choosing the one who pays you. It’s a conflict of interest.

As a journalist, you want to avoid even the appearance of bias. So even if your motives are pure, including a client of yours as a source is a no-go.

One other way double dipping happens: Often, writers end up chatting about their freelance writing activities to business sources they’re interviewing…and the conversation leads to the idea that the business owner would like to hire the writer to write for them.

As excited as you may be by the prospect of adding this business to your client roster, it’s not OK to go to work for a company you used as a story source — at least, not until that article has been published and is done.

3. Telling a story you love

I get a lot of writers in my e-courses who want to write about an issue that’s near and dear to their hearts. But sadly, when a writer is that close to a topic, they often can’t be objective about it, and their reporting suffers.

If you’re a staunch pro-choicer and you’re writing about an abortion issue for a general interest magazine, you may be tempted to not include an opposing viewpoint in your article. And even if you did interview one or two pro-lifers, you may not want to give them as much play in the piece.

I know, I know — you would never do that. You can write a fair and accurate article on any topic. I get that. But even so, we’re talking about the appearance of bias. Even if you wrote a balanced article on an abortion topic and it came out that you, say, run a pro-choice blog — the objectivity of the publication would be called into question.

4. Stealing from yourself

Okay, here’s the story you’ve been waiting for — the one that makes me look pretty bad.

Years ago, I read that if you want to re-sell an article you wrote, in order for the article to be considered original, it has to be 10 percent different from the old one.

I took this rule of thumb to heart. So when I sold an article on the financial benefits of being healthy to two non-competing publications — a health pub and a financial magazine — I wrote the article for the health mag first and then revised it for the financial one. It was 10 percent different, and I thought I was good to go!

Well, somehow the editor of the financial magazine — which was a GREAT client for me — found out and let me tell you, he was pissed. I never wrote for that magazine again, and I learned my lesson.

The actual rule is: If you want to write on a similar topic for two different magazines, the copy has to be completely different.

You should probably interview different sources, or at least use different quotes from the same interviews. Be sure not to reuse any of your copy — not even a sentence. Even if you think you’re in the clear, an editor using Copyscape may not think so.

Ever gotten into ethical trouble with an article? Leave a comment and tell us about it.


How to Get Skeptical Clients to Hire a New Freelance Writer

by Carol Tice – 18 Comments

Skeptical business womanWhen you’re a newbie freelance writer, it can be hard to see how to take the first step. How will you talk that first client into hiring you?

At first, many prospective clients you pitch will turn you down. Which can be discouraging.

And yet, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know it must be possible to break in and get hired — because every writer once had no clients.

One writer recently complained to me about her troubles breaking in.

I’m getting responses from prospects,” Tina told me. “But this is what they say: ‘Great — you talked us into it. We need a freelance writer! But you’re not the right writer. You don’t have enough experience.’ How do I get them to hire me?”–Tina

If you’re a new freelance writer who’s getting this response, there are three basic problems you may have. Here’s what they are, and how to fix them:

1. Targeting the wrong clients.

When you start out, you need to pitch your writing services to clients you are a perfect fit for. But that’s not what most new freelancers do. Instead, they apply for everything and anything — and then wonder why their response rate is so poor.

The way you sell a client on hiring you as a newbie is to show your connection to their subject. Maybe it’s a magazine for veterinarians — and you used to be a veterinarian. Or it’s an article for a parenting magazine about how to talk to your child’s teacher, and you’re a teacher. It’s Web content for a shoe store, and you used to work in a shoe store.

That’s one way to focus your marketing, to clients where you’ve got some inside knowledge most writers don’t have that makes you perfect for the gig.

One other way is to focus on likely first markets. Many new writers start out pitching major national publications, which rarely work with new writers. Then, the writer wonders why nothing’s happening.

When you’re a new writer, you want to go for some easy gigs you stand a good chance of getting off the bat, so you can start building your portfolio. In my new e-book on breaking into freelance writing, there’s a rundown on what these easy, break-in markets are. They include:

  • The newsletter of a charity of professional organization where you belong, give, or volunteer
  • Alternative papers
  • Small businesses you patronize
  • Small-town newspapers (may be daily/weekly/biweekly)
  • Business journals (especially in smaller or more rural markets)
  • Businesses owned by family or friends
  • Free-box publications such as employment newspapers

These places are often hard-up for writing help and would be thrilled to have you revamp their Web pages, cover the city council meeting, or write a play review. These are also all places that give you a real client you had to please, and who could give you a testimonial to impress future clients.

All of these types of first gigs are preferable to writing junk for content mills that will never impress a prospective client.

2. Not making your case properly.

Another problem new writers experience is that you’re pitching markets you have expertise for, but you don’t successfully convey that expertise. You want to flash your knowledge throughout your query letter or letter of introduction, starting right at the top.

Also, it pays to prospect locally, if you can — your nearness is another positive you can have going for you that a lot of the competition won’t.

Finally, count any writing experience you have, whether it’s from your blog, your day job, the college newspaper — anywhere.

Then put it all together into a pitch like this:

“As a freelance writer who had a 15-year career in financial services, I was intrigued by your new payment solution. I looked you up and saw you’re based right here in my town.

I noticed you’ve set up a blog, but that it hasn’t been updated in a few months. As it happens, I’ve been blogging for years. Would you be interested in having a freelance writer with a banking background keep that updated for you? I’d be happy to drop by and discuss it with you.”

Simple as that. Now, you’re not just any writer — and you’ll notice I said nothing about being a new writer, either. You’re simply the best writer for them, because you understand their industry and the type of writing they want, and you’re nearby.

3. No portfolio.

This is the problem that plagues every new writer. You need clips! If you don’t have any luck finding paying gigs right off, the best way to break this no-clips, no-job cycle is to do a little pro-bono work.

When I say that, I don’t mean you should sign up to give free samples to some website. You’ve got to do pro bono right — and that means a small, definable project for a good company or publication with a good reputation, where a clip from them will impress prospects. The scenario also has to include their never telling anyone you weren’t paid, and they’ve got to be willing to give you a testimonial and refer you business if they’re happy.

Put these three steps together, and you should be able to overcome objections to your newbie-writer status, build your portfolio, and start getting paying gigs.

What’s keeping you from getting gigs? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

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