5 Telltale Signs of Lazy Article Writing — Avoid These Blunders

Lazy writer dozing on laptopI meet many writers who are sick of earning $5 or $10 an article on content mills and want to move up to earning real money — $.50-$1 a word or more.

But the problem is, when you’ve been writing cheap SEO articles for search-engine robots to read, you don’t learn how to write the sort of compelling articles people want to read. And that’s the kind that pays well.

In fact, you can develop a bunch of bad habits that will get you into trouble when you’re writing a great-paying article gig.

Writing for magazines involves doing some real research and reporting. If you don’t watch out, your magazine editor will think you’re a lazy writer and won’t want to work with you again.

What are the bonehead mistakes you don’t want to make that will have editors thinking you’re a slacker? Here are the top five I hear from students in my 4-Week Journalism School course:

1. Can I interview sources on email?

Not really, no. Emails are not interviews. When you use the word “said,” it implies you spoke to someone.

If you want to quote from an email, you should disclose it:

“That’s crazy,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response.

And you can see how awkward that is.

You don’t want to do email ‘interviews’ anyway, because they will never be as interesting as what you’ll get talking to someone live. As you chat, you’ll always think of more questions to ask, you’ll see which way to lead the conversation, you can ask follow-up questions…and none of that’s going to happen via email.

Email Q&As may be a staple on blogs, but good-paying markets aren’t going to want to pay big money for them. What makes you worth more is your ability to draw out a subject and get them to say something sparkling, funny, insightful, provocative, unique, or outrageous. You won’t get that in an email.

2. Can I use my friends as sources?

Not usually, and especially not as a new writer.

Your job as a reporter is to go out and find people who are either experts or experiencing the thing you’re writing about. These are supposed to be people you do not personally know (though they could be people your friends know).

Using your personal friends as sources creates a conflict of interest, in that you wouldn’t want to write anything that might embarrass your friend, even if it were true and shed light on the story. So steer clear of your friends and do more research to find good sources.

3. I know this topic. Can I be the expert?

Unless you’re writing an essay or opinion piece, no, you can’t.

As the reporter, your job is to gather information from experts and keep your own opinion out of it. Use your expertise to help you know what questions to ask and which people to interview.

4. Can I quote passages from an author’s book?

No. That’s something you do for school papers, but it doesn’t work for magazine articles.

The editor will be expecting you to get on the phone or meet with the author and get some fresh quotes from them. You might quote the opening line or conclusion of the book for a sentence or two at most, if they’re particularly remarkable. But the bulk of the insight should come direct from the author’s mouth.

5. Can I quote Wikipedia?

No, and here’s why — Wikipedia is created collaboratively by all comers and is not necessarily accurate or up-to-date.

As a reporter, you need to find the first place that published that survey, and then call them up and make sure they haven’t updated that survey since it first came out. You need the most recent data or news, from the original source.

What Wikipedia can be useful for is links. Check the bottom of a page, and you may find some legitimate sources cited, such as a New York Times article or a research firm’s press release.

Follow those breadcrumbs to the source of the news. Then contact and quote the person or research firm yourself.

 

Are you sensing a theme here? Many writers apparently want to avoid talking to live humans when they’re writing stories. They’d rather skip the sleuthing to get to the source of an item and make sure the facts they’ve found are all still true.

I know — interviewing can feel scary. But getting out and talking to real people is the only way to deliver the sort of article that’s worth $1 a word.

If you need to, practice by interviewing a friend. Then, do an interview piece, even if it’s for your own blog. Start getting some practice in pro article skills, so that you can move up to better-paying article assignments.

Have you done interviews for articles? Leave a comment and tell us how it went — or what’s holding you back from doing it.

Tagged with: , ,
54 comments on “5 Telltale Signs of Lazy Article Writing — Avoid These Blunders
  1. I’m alright with email interviews for blog posts, mostly because in blog posts they mainly serve as quotes. Email is great for quotes, after all. But I wouldn’t write a feature article – or even a short department piece – to a magazine with email-only interviews/chats.

    This is my biggest problem with living in Italy– using the phone to make calls in the US is too expensive and cellphone networks are kind of weak in my area anyway. All I can do is use Skype (now that I got it to work with Linux!) or another VoIP solution. I’m working on my feelings this week to try and be brave enough to start using Skype the way a journalist should. LOL πŸ˜› I guess I’m ashamed of my Italian accent and the fact that my listening skills aren’t top notch– but as Sophie Lizard told me, I shouldn’t worry about asking my source to repeat things; and listening skills will improve over time.

    After the Writer’s Mind design overhaul taking place tomorrow, I’ll have to start planning interviews to writer friends and successful bloggers. It’s a dream of mine now itching to become reality. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the wake-up call, Carol!

    ~ Luana S.
    Luana Spinetti recently posted…8 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before You Accept To Write For FREEMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Luana — I have to strongly disagree that “email is great for quotes.” I think email is awful for quotes!

      You simply do not get the spontaneity or the interaction that you will with a live conversation. People are editing and sculpting what they’re saying as they type. You get stiffer and more measured responses rather than getting sources to loosen up and tell you what they REALLY think. πŸ˜‰

      For any magazine, they will expect you to talk to people, not exchange emails, as you know. It’s simply a muscle you need to develop, the art of interviewing people.

      Just plunge in, and remember to talk nice and slow on Skype as it can have hitch-ups. Between that and an accent it is challenging, but you can overcome it.

      • Hi Carol. πŸ™‚ So far, the need for quotes in my blog posts has been minimal and an email chat (I’d rather call it a ‘chat’ than an ‘interview’, because you just don’t ‘view’ each other!) sufficed to the need of short information, regardless of tone and spontaineity. But I can tell you— I’m trying to pitch Metro Parent and I got in touch with a local source via email to get a line to include in the pitch… and I’m having second thoughts. Every freelance guide I’ve read so far says it’s fine to connect via email and ask for a line to include in the query, because if I get the assignment I would still need to get the phone for a live interview. But are there magazines out there that require short live interviews even to get a few information for the query? In all honesty, I would feel uneasy if I were to phone a source twice– for the query and for the assignment.

        Aside from that doubt, though, even the shy little Luana in me believes a human touch is much better than a cold message. I can see how readers can tell the difference.

        On a more personal side, I think interviews might be therapeutic to me (you know– those issues with anxiety, depression and social phobias I mentioned in the past..). I used to be in a relationship with a boy from Malta years ago– and he didn’t speak Italian. Wow, we shared love and tears in English over the phone and I even knew how to fight in my second language! LOL. Where has my bold face gone? I need to get some back.

        Thank you, Carol. πŸ™‚

        ~ Lu
        Luana Spinetti recently posted…5 Freelance Writing Pearls From β€œKung Fu Panda”My Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Luana, I don’t know what you’re reading that says email interviews are good. You have to stop feeling “uneasy” about talking to a source more than once, because actually that is the norm! Often, your editor will ask for one more piece of information and you’ll end up calling them back anyway.

          Realize that experts are dying to be in the media, and really don’t mind.

          What sells a query letter is a GREAT quote…and you’re going to get that live, not on email.

  2. Oh dear, I have definitely committed cardinal sin number one. It was a while ago now though. (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

    As Susan Johnston above says though, sometimes it’s hard to pin your sources down for a face to face interview…

    Thanks for this Carol! Ever-helpful as usual.
    Kirsty Stuart recently posted…Starting a New Blog? Just Get It out ThereMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      We’ve all done email interviews under dire circumstances…but I bristle when they become the norm.

      Now that I’m trolling HARO as an expert myself, to plug my business book, I’m shocked at how many requests are just “Send us the answer to this question and if we like it we’ll include it in our roundup.”

      Not only do these result in poor-quality blog posts, but that writer is missing a golden opportunity to build a relationship with a source. And that’s the other big problem with email interviews — you do not connect with that person. Building your network is one of the most important things you should be doing as a reporter and as a blogger, too.

      • I’m not sure I get that last point…. are you saying *no* form of connecting “counts” if it’s done entirely electronically? What about the Writer’s Den forums?

        On the “Send us the answer to this question and if we like it we’ll include it” part, I agree entirely. That sounds as if the “interviewer” doesn’t even want to be bothered with the source’s personal opinions and experiences, just wants something to copy-and-paste that will back up whatever point he’s trying to make–and doesn’t mind letting the source know whose convenience is more important.
        Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          No…no form of interviewing sources is nearly as good if it’s on email. Writing each other on a forum isn’t for publication.

          And yeah, these “Answer this one question and I put it in my roundup” deals sort of nauseate me.

  3. Good points, but as a professional writer with 20+ years of experience, I strongly disagree with “no interviews by email.” Email interviews are the only way to catch some experts, and if the questions are written thoughtfully, can be a good source of material. It also helps reproduce quotes accurately.

    But I have to add one pet peeve that you didn’t include: ending stories with a subhead such as “Conclusion.” Yes, I’ve seen those too many times to count. Folks, if you need to mark your conclusion “Conclusion”, it’s time to go back to the drawing board!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, we’ll agree to disagree about email interviews. I still urge writers to strive to avoid them. I have had situations where I’ve had to give up and do them…but you don’t want that to be your default or normal mode.

      But using the subhead “Conclusion”? Eek! Haven’t seen that one.

  4. Lindsay Wilson says:

    I used to face this dilemma often years ago as a student writer for my local newspaper. As a newbie, I found it easier to approach, but I usually ended up calling the source up anyway to clarify things that they had said in the email. That said, if a source offered to send something via email in addition to a phone interview, I’d never say no. You might find something in the email that they hadn’t thought to say on the phone!

    As an aside, to address the fear that writers may have about calling up sources, I used to be petrified of it. However, when I worked on the other side of the fence in PR several years later, I learned that most experts are sitting on their hands waiting for you to call! They pay an agency or in-house specialist to find writers to do just that because it gets their name in the press. πŸ™‚

  5. I’m a bit surprised there aren’t more “devil’s advocate” comments on the e-mail question. I won’t name names, but:

    -I know many established publishers who think nothing of treating e-mail exchanges like standard interviews. (I know you don’t think much of it either, LOL. And no, these aren’t the dollar-a-word markets, but they aren’t content mills either; mostly they’re in the 15-20-cents-per word range.)

    -I actually posed the question to two other prominent business writers; one could hardly believe anyone would be opposed to the idea, and the other said it was entirely a matter of personal preference.

    That said, most of the above conversations were in the specific context of articles that stick to noncontroversial topics, use multiple sources, focus on opinions and personal experience more than anything–and, again, didn’t involve the most prominent and universally known publishers. So please don’t take me as actually disagreeing with the basic premise, just as suggesting it may not *always* be *quite* that absolute.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh, there’s plenty of lowered standards out there. Just want to encourage people not to play along.

      Email interviews suck. If you want to move up as a freelancer, you need great interviews. Talk to people live. That’s my advice.

      Yes, there are places that won’t care…but if you want great clips that help you get great gigs, YOU will care.

  6. Willi Morris says:

    These are AWESOME Carol. Great lead-in to J-School stuff. I have quoted Wikipedia before as a journalist and totally regretted it. (As a Wikipedia article about “Quoting Wikipedia” popped up with my name on it. LOL) The only time I’ve used e-mail for interviews is when it’s a celebrity, and I had *no* other option.
    Willi Morris recently posted…Bonus Blog: E-mail *is* Social Media, So Don’t Be a B*tch!My Profile

    • I learned my lesson on THAT one when I sent in a query with several Wikipedia articles in the bibliography and was told to redo it with better sources. I did, but suspect it still had something to do with the query’s ultimately being rejected.
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

  7. Oludami says:

    Woah! Woah! Perfect timing, Carol! You are such an angel. I was just on the brink of submitting an MSN Nigeria job this evening before I decided to give myself a break and check my mails.
    I quoted Wikipedia – and this is not the first time I’d been quoting Wikipedia for my articles – and I believed it was perfect as I did extra work on the article which is really not commiserate with the pay (the pay is generally awesome…but not for this particular word count). Just thought I should do it as part of portfolio building.
    I also quoted a friend, but his story was just perfect for the article, and I really had no bias.
    Thanks for the tips. I only hope quoting blogs and websites is still good.
    Oludami recently posted…The Essence of What I DoMy Profile

  8. I do a lot of interviews even for posts.

    I try (whenever possible) to do them in person in a nice cafe downtown because it’s also part of my networking. (I offer a card and keep in touch on LinkedIn.) I find people really open up more in person.

    The best info comes right at the end once the interview is over and I turn off my phone and shut my book. That’s when the golden quotes come out.

    As a writer, I also like to get out of my office and meet people. Sometimes I schedule several interviews for one day.
    Amy Dunn Moscoso recently posted…Publish, Promote, Repeat: Dashboard Tools to Share Your Stuff with the WorldMy Profile

  9. Karen Finn says:

    Yes, as an introvert I still get a bit nervous interviewing people, even though I’ve been doing it for well over a decade! But once I start talking, the jitters generally disappear. Doing your homework on the topic in advance helps you ask the right questions, and interviewees appreciate it. That said, asking a question even if you think it’s stupid is much better than getting it wrong or misquoting somebody. Interviewees are usually passionate about their area of expertise and love talking about it — as long as they feel they can trust you.
    Karen Finn recently posted…Talk of relaxing UK Bribery Act as GSK denies China corruption accusationsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      That is SO right. I ask ‘dumb’ questions all the time.

      “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite follow that…the lumber first goes through this machine and it’s called a what again? Can you spell that?”

      That is the job. Keep asking until you understand it.

  10. jordan clary says:

    I love interviewing. It’s one of my favorite parts. With a good interview, the article practically writes itself. When I was writing for a local paper I did tons of interviews, usually in person. I always recorded them and it helped immensely because I was able to just focus on the person. I do have question about recording on the phone. How do you do it? I have a small handheld recorder but it seems awkward to hold it up to the receiver.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m with you. Actually just got back a draft from my Horizon Airlines magazine editor, and the incredible quotes I got for the piece just sold the story, and she had hardly any revisions to suggest. πŸ˜‰ Great quotes make the article — and you won’t get them on email, or from quoting their book, or from Wikipedia.

    • Amel says:

      For phone recordings, I would suggest investing in a smartphone. Not only can you record calls as you speak, but you can also send the recordings straight to your computer via Dropbox or another application. It’s a really nifty way to handle recordings. You may pay a bit more for a smartphone but I think it is worth it for all the benefits you get. A recorder is just a recorder, but a smartphone lets you do so much more.
      Amel recently posted…50 Markets that Pay Freelance Writers More than 50 Cents per Word – Including 27 Markets that Pay up to $1 per Word and MoreMy Profile

  11. Amandah says:

    I’ve done both phone and email interview for articles. Sometimes, you have to do an email interview because they person’s schedule is jammed pack; they’d rather answer questions via email.

    I try to be as accommodating as possible and will suggest an interview via Skype and/or Google Chat/Video. Conducting an interview via Google Video/Skype is wonderful because you get to see the person. You can’t see someone on your phone, unless you have that capability. I don’t.
    Amandah recently posted…What Cats Can Teach YOU About Social Media TodayMy Profile

  12. I’ve done both phone interviews and email “interviews” for articles. It’s been a while, though. There’s a few minutes of fear, and then (so long as you prepared in advance), it’s not so bad.

    Also, even if you’re not going to be quoting a book, I think it’s important to do book/magazine research ahead of the interview (at least a little, like reading a review, a profile of the author, etc.) so you know what kind of questions to ask, are familiar with jargon, etc.

    I’d very much like to get back into writing features where I’d need to go back to doing interviews. In the past, I’ve found it hard to schedule interviews with anyone outside PST (or PDT!) because of being on the West Coast. Has anyone else ever had that problem?
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted…What I’m doing for my summer vacationMy Profile

    • I’m curious as to how the West Coast would present a problem–unless all your sources are on the East Coast and insist on being interviewed at 6 or 7 a.m. their time. Or do you mean that you have problems with one side or the other calling at the time they *thought* they had agreed on, only to find out that “I meant 10:00 MY time, not yours”? I’ve done several different-time-zone interviews myself, and find that problem fairly easy to circumvent simply by being clear at the beginning–“You’re based in Richmond, that’s Eastern Daylight Time, right? So I’ll call you at your 10 a.m.?”–and then writing it into my own (Central) schedule as 9 a.m.
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

      • Carol Tice says:

        I’ve been interviewing people via phone across time zones for literally decades now — it’s not that hard to get it straight. Now that there’s email calendars you can schedule events into, the invite automatically makes it your time zone. This is not a big barrier.

        The big thing I learned was to unplug the ring of my phone that’s in the bedroom so when New Yorkers call at 3 am my time about something because they have no idea where my area code is, I don’t have to wake up. πŸ˜‰

        • Or who don’t realize you have a *home* office and expect to get a voice mail, or who just forget about the time difference. One Connecticut-based writer made both those mistakes in one 6 a.m. (for her) phone call, and was puzzled as to why her editor was in such a grumpy mood–the reality didn’t hit her until after they hung up.
          Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

        • I sometimes have had problems with the East Coast (when I finally reach my desk here after carpool at 9:15-ish is just about when their lunch hour starts), but because I’ve written for Jewish media, I’ve also had to arrange phone calls with people in Europe or Israel. Ugh.

          Complete strangers have awakened me because they’ve misdialed a friend and forgotten that the friend was in L.A., let alone any business contact. I think that when a phone is about to ring on the West Coast before 8 am, there should be an automatic pause where the phone company tells you, “Are you aware that it is only 5 am on the other end of this call?” and gives you the option to hang up and try again later.
          Rebecca Klempner recently posted…What I’m doing for my summer vacationMy Profile

          • Carol Tice says:

            Ha, I wish! I get SO many back-east PR calls at 4 or 5 am. You MUST unplug phone ring. Trust me on this. So much relief.

            You can’t let time zones stop you from getting the story. That is all. Make it work. I think there are some disadvantages to being on this coast, but we just have persevere. I have come in at 6 am when need be. Occasionally, someone else may need to take that carpool. Just how it is.

            I once had to do a series of interviews with people in Japan! That was the worst…had to be like 10 pm my time.

  13. Jennifer says:

    I totally agree. The only times that I will use an email interview is when the source is crucial to the story and I get permission from the editor. For example, I was assigned a FOB on Burger King for QSR Magazine, but BK wasn’t granting phone interviews at the time because of a transition. I couldn’t do the story without the interview so my editor gave me permission for an email interview and I noted in the story.

    My tip for newbies is to view interviews as a conversation where you get the expert to tell you what they know about the topic, not a phone call where you go through a rigid list of questions. I always start off with a few basic questions written down, but the interviews that end up with the most interesting articles are the ones where I am flexible and let the content go where it goes. I usually start off with a general question and then follow up with questions based on what the source tells me.

    I also find that the interview goes much better if I have done research ahead of time on the topic and on the source. Sources really appreciate it when you have taken the time to learn something before calling them.

    My other tip is to record the call so you can focus on the conversation not on transcribing. I get much better interviews when I do it this way.
    Jennifer recently posted…Find a Content Marketing Writing Gig on the Job BoardsMy Profile

  14. Rohi Shetty says:

    You are absolutely right, Carol. Talking to live humans is scary for most newbies.

    Btw, what do you do: tape the interview and transcribe it later or take notes during the interview?

    And which recorder do you recommend?

    Thanks again.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…The Best Thing You Can Do With Your LipsMy Profile

    • Anita says:

      This is discussed in her ebook 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster.

      The answer in it’s essence: type while you’re talking. She and coauthor Linda have different takes on this, and you may find it worth reading if you have questions on the topic.
      Anita recently posted…how it feels when your kids hold up a mirror for youMy Profile

    • Chris Klein says:

      I’ve interviewed loads of experts by phone (and some in person) the last 20 years. I nearly always record the interview. Even if I type while we talk, I still record it. Sometimes it’s impossible to type fast enough to capture everything. But if you’ve recorded it, you can always go back and listen to that one REALLY meaningful comment the interviewee made that you missed while you were typing:)

  15. Right on, Carol!

    To be fair, these practices are sometimes suggested by the sources themselves. I often have to coax an expert to spend a few minutes with me on the phone because they’d much rather email me their answers so they don’t get caught off-guard or say something that doesn’t quite make sense. But the nice thing about phone interviews is that you sometimes go on tangents that lead to more article ideas and that rarely happens over email. I sometimes say to sources, “my editor insists on phone interviews so please let me know if there’s a good time for us to connect or if there’s someone else I should call.”

    And I sometimes have sources who, instead of answering the question, will say something like, “Oh, that’s all in chapter 13 of my book. You should read it.” To which I might say, “what are the highlights you’d like readers to know about ____?” Or “Could you distill that information into a few key takeaways and they can read the book if they’d like more details?” I get that they’re trying to sell books but it’s just not realistic for me to read volumes of material before interviewing a source. Plus, I need that information in quotable sound bytes rather than chapters of information.

    I’d love to know how others handle these two situations!
    Susan Johnston recently posted…Author Carol Tice on Writing, Promoting a Business BookMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I love your answer, “My editor insists on live interviews.” I just tell them emails are not interviews and I want to talk to them, and if they can’t do that I find another expert.

  16. Carol, I’ve recently been working in collaboration with someone on the content for a new footie (soccer) magazine.

    He’s great. But he’s a businessman not a writer. And what he has a habit of doing is to get loads of facts from Wikipedia and present them as footie stats.

    I’m forever telling him to stop it. It’s not so much that the stuff may be out of date, the fact that it looks lazy or that it’s tedious to read. It’s the fact that it simply adds no value.

    And I think that sort of sums up the 5 lazy points that you’ve made above: If it adds no value then just don’t do it.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…Are your web directory listings one big waste of time?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great point, Kevin. The thing about writing high-paid articles is these editors are expecting you to bring something fresh, not something you recycled off Wikipedia, a book you read, etc. You have to get out there and talk to live humans and bring back something unique. THAT is what they pay you for.