Article Interviews: Why Do They Talk?

February 16, 2012

A few years back when I was on staff a at trade magazine, I set out to interview a key merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s. Susan K. was glamorous, sophisticated, powerful, and notoriously press-averse.

“Everybody already knows who I am and what I stand for,” she told me. “Manufacturers and designers all want to get their products onto my floor.  The only possible thing that could happen if I do the interview is I could say something wrong and get people mad at me. Why would I consent to that?”

Why indeed? Why take the risk?

I was thinking about this situation not too long ago, while I was writing an article for a regional magazine about the pros and cons of living a rural life. I had contacted a writer friend of mine who lives in the country, and she spoke eloquently–almost lyrically–about the joy of driving home on winding roads after a long day at work.

“If you quote me, do you have to use my name and hometown?” she asked.

I did. That was the magazine’s policy. She told me that she didn’t like being so exposed in print — but then she said she would do it this time, and she looked forward to seeing my piece.

I wondered: Why did she agree to be published? Was it because I was her friend and she didn’t want to disappoint me? Had I gotten her to do something she didn’t want to do? Did that make me a bad friend?

Another time I was working on an article about developmental delays in children, and through a friend of a friend, got in touch with the mother of a severely disabled preschooler. The child had motor issues and language problems, and Mom’s entire life revolved around doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. Worried that she would regret being so open, I offered to hold back on anything she preferred to remain unpublished — but no, she said, she was fine with my printing everything she said.

Why did she agree to be published? Did she really want to be as open as she claimed she did? Would the right thing be to hold back on some of her more personal quotes, as a way of protecting her from her own candor? Did I exploit her to write a good story?

Now, my interviews don’t always proceed this way. Some people ask to see their quotes before the article is printed. Some people even ask me to repeat their quotes two or three times, as though their whole world might collapse if they used the word “this” instead of “that.” Sometimes it’s because they’ve been misquoted by others in the past, and sometimes it’s because they have never been quoted, so they don’t know what to expect. And some people just don’t like to relinquish control.

And what of my Bloomingdale’s friend? She ultimately and unexpectedly called me back and agreed to the interview — and enjoyed the whole process so much that she thanked me whenever she saw me for months.

Why did she talk?

Truth be told, I’ll never  know exactly why anyone I’ve contacted decides either to speak to me or not to. But if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that being interviewed for publication entails consequences — and when people decide to do it, I want to make sure that they’ve reached that decision without being manipulated, and that I quote them accurately, objectively and in the proper context.

How about you? Have you ever tried to interview someone who felt conflicted about whether to talk? What did you say and what did they say? What finally happened?

Another diplomatic day in the life of just another working writer.

And P.S….my fellow blogger Nicole Cloutier (http://nicolecloutier.me) nominated my blog for a sunshine award. Now it’s my turn to spread the sunshine, so stay tuned for my great blog pics!

Why I Went Freelance: A Cautionary Tale

February 7, 2012

So I work on a kitchen table; my stapler and print cartridges are never where I left them, thanks to my thieving children; I have no steady income and am always out trolling for my next gig; and nearly all my telephone interviews are accompanied by the sound of my dog barking or the UPS deliveryman pounding on my door.

Why do I continue to believe that a freelancer’s life is the best writing life?

Let me tell you my story.

My first journalism job was as a reporter on a trade magazine that covered the furniture industry–a job I thought was the greatest that a person could ever have. I traveled all over the country, attending trade shows and press conferences, sniffing out mergers,executive shakeouts and other juicy bits of intrigue. I was wined and dined by marketing and PR folks (on nearly limitless expense accounts) trying to prove that their brands deserved coverage. I was the toast of the publishing team, my editor’s best reporter…

And that’s when they stabbed me in the back: They promoted me.

Now it was my reporters who traveled all over the country, while I stayed back in the office, correcting grammar, checking facts, and making nice  to hysterical sources who claimed my writers had misquoted them. My good friend at work suddenly hated me, because she wanted the promotion I got, and the rest of my staff hated me too, because they thought I was too young and inexperienced to be their boss (and truth be told, they were probably right).

And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse…they promoted me again.

This time, I was editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine–which meant that much of my time was spent accompanying my publisher on sales calls, a sign to prospective clients that if they bought a lot of advertising from him, they’d own a good piece of me. On the personnel side, one of the higher-ups stepped in to hire an acquaintance of his as a reporter — but when we realized that she couldn’t string together a sentence, I was the one who had to show her the door. Another day, another enemy. And finally, on the eve of a trade show, I got word that the company was considering closing my magazine unless I beefed up our reporting so more ads would come in. I pushed all of my reporters — even M., who had just come down with a nasty case of bronchitis — to work nearly round the clock to shore up our reputation.

The magazine was closed down the next week anyway. Then I had to call M. at home, where she lay feverish and miserable, to tell her that I had been saved but she was out of a job.

So I say to my family–give me your worst. Hide my stapler and steal my print cartridges. Let the dog carry on, and let the UPS guy pound from today until doomsday.

A staff job? I’ve been there. And I’m never going back!

What do you think? Would you rather join a staff or be freelance?

Another grateful day in the life of just another working writer.

Freelance Writing and the Long Goodbye

February 1, 2012

I’m afraid the time has come for me to talk about goodbyes.

Not too long ago, I scored a steady gig with a regional, glossy magazine. I had spent months painstakingly querying the managing editor, pitching ideas, and following up on emails, trying to be polite and firm but not annoying or pestering. Finally, she got the green light from her boss to give me an assignment — and that led to a regular quarterly column.

I loved writing for that magazine. I loved its luxurious photography. I loved its thick, glossy paper and the charming graphics that accompanied my articles. Mostly, I loved the relationship I formed with the managing editor–the greetings we’d send as my manuscripts went through various revises, the banter about clueless or too-talkative interviewees. I learned that she had a big house in the country, as well as a big, sloppy dog and a couple of kids, and she was planning to take a cruise on the new QE2. She was kind of a friend, although I never saw her except on the photo on the magazine’s masthead.

And then, last summer, after more than two years of steady writing, the email came, informing me that my beloved column had been canceled. “It’s nothing against you,” my editor-friend said. “It’s just that the editor-in-chief wants to scale down on the amount of copy we’re running and add more photo spreads.”

Sirens went off in my ears and red alarms started flashing in my brain, spurring me to act fast and salvage the relationship. Reminding myself that her company had two other publications in addition to the one I had been writing for, I fired back a response. “I completely understand,” I wrote, “and actually, I have a few ideas for your other magazines that I’d like to share with you. Do you have some time later this month? I’d love to stop by your office, or even buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Hmm, coffee sounds good,” she wrote back. “But we’re putting out the next issue, and things are a bit hectic. Let me call you in a month or so.”

No, she never did.

The bookshelves in my office are lined with magazine holders storing publications I used to write for but no longer do. Back when my kids were infants and toddlers, I wrote all the time for Parents and American Baby, using my own experiences as a source of ideas. But my kids started growing up at the same time that one of my favorite editors left American Baby to become a nurse, and those gigs sort of drifted away. I also used to be a book reviewer for bn.com — but my editor there left as well, and her successor decided to write the reviews in-house. I really miss those assignments.

Of course, there have been plenty of new gigs to take the place of those that went away. One of my long-term clients has kept me so busy lately that he’s changed my bio in the magazine from “freelance writer” to “regular contributor.” I’ve found great opportunities at online publications, and a few editors I thought I lost touch with have found me through the Internet and given me assignments from their new berths. Scouting out new opportunities is part of being a freelancer. It’s what makes freelancing fun.

Still, I can’t help wondering how my editor-friend’s big, sloppy dog is…and whether she enjoyed her cruise.

Another sentimental day in the life of just another working writer.

The Art of the Quote: A Cautionary Tale for Freelance Writers

January 24, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on a 500-word article for a local, glossy magazine about backyard decks.The focus of the piece was on sun management, and my assignment was to give some options for — and discuss my personal experience with — cooling down a deck that gets too much sun in the summer.

The most familiar and popular option, of course, is to install an awning — but because of the angle of my deck relative to the sun, I found that there was no way an awning could provide me with shade during hot afternoons. Instead, I got a builder to create an inexpensive pergola — a simple wood structure with vertical poles and latticework — and installed sun-blocking shades on the sides and the top.

To round out the article, I interviewed the owner of a major local awning retailer to talk about the types of awnings and their benefits — and then called the owner of the small company that manufactured the shades I bought, to ask her about the benefits of outdoor shades.

Now, my editor doesn’t like a lot of quotes in an article. She typically just asks for one overview-type quote, because she feels quotes slow down the flow of a piece. So I used a quote from the awning guy, because it was clever and succinct, and  awnings are a more widely used product. Then I discussed my own experience and praised the shades for being well priced, easy to clean, and effective in blocking the sun.

When the article was published, I emailed the shade manufacturer and sent her a link to the online version of the article. I expected her to be pleased with the nod that I gave to outdoor shades, so was completely unprepared for her snarky email response.

“I’m not sure why you sent this,” she wrote back. “Is something missing? I don’t see my quote, only the quote from the awning store.”

What? Couldn’t she read between the lines? Didn’t she see that while I quoted the awning retailer, the experience I described showed that shades were a better option? Didn’t she realize that I may have opened people’s eyes to a product they didn’t even know about? Wasn’t that more important that stroking her ego by including her name and her exact words?

I haven’t responded, because I don’t know what to say. Should I apologize for not quoting her? Blame it on my editor, who discourages quotes? Or try to explain to her that I actually did her a bigger favor by describing my success with her product?

What would you have done?

Another defensive day in the life of just another working writer.

Why I Love Being a Writer: A Reminder

January 19, 2012

Those of you who have been following my blog probably realize by now that I’m a bit of a complainer. I complain about boring assignments or tedious tasks that accompany the writing of a new piece. I complain about editors who hang onto a draft for a month and then demand that the revise be turned in two minutes later. And as for crazy-low payment rates…well, don’t get me started.

But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember that what I do is actually pretty cool

Last night, my daughter told me about a discussion in her history class. Her teacher was beginning a unit on the Civil War, and asked the students if they or a member of their families had any special interest in or connection with that time period.

My daughter raised her hand to say that I was working on a project about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I had spent time researching documents and journals from the 1860s. She said that when we go on family vacations, we occasionally end up visiting outlying historical locations to scope out new details about Lincoln and the course of the war.

“What does your mother do?” the teacher asked.

“She’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and some websites.”

At this point, the teacher’s eyes widened, and she threw up her hands in a kind of surrendering motion. “Well, we may as well stop the conversation right here,” she said. “Because I don’t think any of us are going to be able to top that.”

I laughed when I heard this story. “Come on,” I said. “I write about mattresses and kitchen gadgets, and occasionally get involved with some historical thing. It’s not all that impressive.”

“Well, she was impressed,” my daughter said.

That conversation stuck with me all night and into this morning, and actually, I’m still smiling as I write this. Maybe my daughter’s history teacher secretly dreams of writing, or maybe there’s another reason why her reaction was somewhat over the top. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that what we do –interviewing people, researching documents, making sense of seemingly random events, and then creating a piece of writing that never existed before — takes skill. And a bit of magic.  It may seem simple to people like us, who do it all the time; but simple, it’s not.

Let’s promise not to forget that, ok?

Another proud day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Article Assignments: Why Do I Keep Saying Yes?

January 13, 2012

So one of my best clients emailed me toward the end of last summer to offer me two major article assignments. The pay was relatively good, and I was skilled at the type of research and interviewing that would be required.

I hesitated, however, to accept the work, as I estimated that it  would fill my working time for the next four months. I wouldn’t be able to accept other assignments, prospect for new assignments or clients, or–most important–devote time to my favorite new project.

You see, I had  spent much of the summer working on my first young adult novel, and I was having a blast. I loved the freedom of fiction writing. I loved making stuff up, which was refreshing after so many years of stressing accuracy and sticking to the facts. I found my characters fascinating, especially my spunky 11-year-old protagonist, and I loved throwing obstacles at her and figuring out how she would get through.

Still, as a working writer, I couldn’t see turning down the work. I needed the paychecks. I wanted the money. I promised myself that I would work for the four months–but then I would slow down and give myself the luxury of time to work on my novel.

So now the four months are now almost over, I’ve got just two more days’ work at the most, and the reward of time to write fiction is so close, I can taste it.

And then, out of the blue, So another client called yesterday to offer me a basic product story. What do you think I did?

You’re right — I said yes.

Why.

Of course, a big part of it is the paycheck. I can’t deny that. But I think there’s more.

I think I said yes partly because I always overestimate the time it will take me to do stuff. I’m often convinced that I can make time to both do my paying work and have my writing fun. The truth is, I rarely do. The paying work always takes over.

I also think I said yes partly because even though I complain a lot about tedious assignments, the truth is I get a kick out of article writing — interviewing business executives, motivating them to reveal some tidbit of news or surprising comment, boiling down research into the assigned wordcount, hearing “good job!” from an editor.

But I think I also said yes because writing fiction is so…unpredictable. It takes a lot out of you. Maybe it’s because I’m new at it and I’m not very good, but it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to get started on a page. Once I get going, it becomes great fun, but before I sit down at the computer, I feel so doubtful. Will I write something great today? Am I getting anywhere? Would anyone else love this the way I do? Is this just a big time waster?

I don’t have those fears with my paid work.

Still, if I keep pushing off my fiction, I’ll never find out if it could amount to anything at all.

I see the days and weeks and months passing, and I wonder if I’m spending my time in the best way, or just the safest way.

How do you choose the way to spend your writing time?

Another conflicted day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From a Silent Writer

January 9, 2012

A friend of mine started working at home recently, and she said that she finds the weirdest thing about it is not leaving the house until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when she has to carpool her daughter from school.

I said that didn’t bother me so much — to me, the weirdest thing about working at home is that I can’t do it when others are in the house. So weekend working is out for me — I just cannot be productive as a writer unless the house is totally empty.

What’s that all about?

Well, I finally figured it out yesterday. It’s because I talk out loud when I write.

And it’ s not that I mouth the words that I’m writing (which I do). The problem is that I…well, I sort of cheer.

For example, for the last few weeks I’ve been working on some…don’t get me wrong, I love my clients and my assignments, but I would have to say the recent work has been tedious. It’s a product story, and part of my research has involved digging into websites, press releases and interview notes to compile lists with pricing, warranty, features, and other dry information for almost a dozen brands. I wanted to get it done in one sitting, so I wouldn’t have to return to it ever again.

So because I was thinking about the whole experience of working at home, I ended up listening to myself.

When I finished a paragraph, I said in a loud whisper, “Good.”

When I finished two more, I said full out, “Almost done!”

And when it was almost dinnertime and I was hungry and tired and this close to giving up, I started furiously typing as I basically sang to myself, “You can do it, you can do it, you can do it, you can do it…”

A few time my kids have come home and walked in on my when I was in the middle of one of my “cheers” — what an embarassment. Sometimes they’ll say, “What?” because they thought I was talking to them. So I have to explain that I was just talking to myself, which of course makes them laugh out loud or roll their eyes like I’m nuts.

I have a writer friend who works at her local library every day. I tell her that I can’t work that way, because I do a lot of phone interviews, which is true. But I’ve never told her the real reason — which is that I’m scared I’ll blurt out “There you go!” or some other embarrassing word of encouragement intended entirely for myself (although she’ll learn the truth if she reads this).

Ooops…just screamed out “Finished the blog, YES!” Did you hear it?

So come clean: Do you talk out loud when you write? What do you say?

Another chatty day in the life of just another working writer!

 

 

 

The Curse of Free Stuff for a Freelance Writer

December 13, 2011

So I have to go to the dentist, and I’m dreading it. Not because I’m scared of pain. It’s just that the last time I went to see him, he handed me a jar of fancy nuts.

Let me explain.

You see, his wife has a start-up nonprofit business, producing flavored nuts — spicy, sweet, tangy, etc. — and she donates all profit to animal welfare. And like the good husband he is, he saw an opportunity to get her some media coverage, knowing that I’m a freelance writer who frequently reviews new products.

“Enjoy them,” he said cheerily. “And don’t forget to tell me how you like them.”

Which, to my ears, meant, “Don’t forget to tell me when your article about them is published.”

Look, I know that free stuff is just about the only perk that writers get. And why should I feel indebted to this guy for one little jar of nuts? I’m sure he didn’t think he was tying a noose around my neck. I mean, come on — we all know that major beauty editors routinely bring home hundreds of dollars worth of free cosmetics each month without blinking a perfectly made-up eye. We all know that online experts get tons of free stuff from manufacturers hoping for high praise in a blog. And truth be told, I’ve gotten some free stuff in my time — some not so great (a cleaning liquid that claimed to remove red wine, but let’s just say I’m glad I tested it on a white rag and not a white blouse) and some pretty wonderful (a queen-size luscious down comforter–‘nuf said).

But no matter if I end up writing positively about the product (the comforter), negatively about the product (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done this), or not at all about the product (the stain remover and the nuts), I feel guilty, as though I’m getting away with something.

Which is why I felt bad about seeing my dentist.

Although when I finally went back and he charged me more than $400 for a filling, I stopped feeling that way…

Writers — how do you feel when you get free stuff?

Just another guilt-soaked day in the life of a working writer.

Many, Some, Most, Few..The Tools of a Working Writer

December 9, 2011

When I first started out as a freelance writer, there was a kind of unspoken rule among writers and editors regarding some common words. I could be writing a story about anything — strollers or refrigerators or even ways to get your baby to give up her bottle — but my method always started out the same: Interview somewhere between 8 and 12 executives or experts, and then see where there opinions intersected.

Here’s where the rule comes in: If, say, all the executives I interviewed said their companies were introducing new models of high chairs, I would refrain from using any modifier, stating simply, “Manufacturers are introducing new high chairs this spring.” If more than half were introducing new high chairs, I would use the same sentence, but start it with the word “Many” or “Most.” If just under half were doing this, I would use “Some,” and if well less than half were, the word would become “Few.”

Now, I was clearly taking some literary license here, as 8 or 12 experts did not  constitute the entire universe of high-chair producers. Counting importers and small regional manufacturers, there could be dozens, if not hundreds. I was extrapolating on a gigantic scale. Still, I always made sure to contact  marketing executives from the largest and most successful companies, etc. And my editors were okay with that. They never questioned me. I think my readers understood the context as well. And the conclusions I drew were sound and helpful.

Fast forward to today, as I continue to write about consumer products — but now, a word like “many” or “most” will make some editors I know apoplectic. “HOW MANY IS ‘MANY?'”  they’ll insert in red into my manuscript, the written equivalent of shouting. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY ‘SOME?'” And if I happen to  mention a particularly interesting new product, they’ll ask, “IS THIS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND?” or “IS ANY OTHER COMPANY DOING THIS?”

“Not that I know of,” I’ll answer, or “I haven’t found any other products like this one.” But it bothers me to say this, as it seems to indicate I’m shirking on the job. No, I haven’t located every single company making a particular product — how could I possibly interview 60,80, 100 companies for one article that has a deadline of about a month? It could take me a year to reach that many companies — and I still wouldn’t be sure I had contacted them all.

What do you think of the words “many” and “most” when you write — or when you read an article? How comfortable are you with an experienced writer who sometimes relies on extrapolation?

Another tense day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Cute Girl Again

December 8, 2011

I’m working on an article on mattresses, a business I have been covering for (gulp) more than 20 years, and I  need to reach out to some of my old contacts to find out what the latest product trends are. So I study the linked-in site and reach out to a few names I remember who are still marketing and selling beds. Will they remember me? Will they make time to be interviewed? Will they be really old? Will they think I am?

So one responds immediately to my linked-in invite with a message: “So glad to know cute girl I remember is still writing!”

He was just a few years older than I was back when I first met him, and he owned a small chain of mattress stores in the Northeast. I was doing a story on retailing, and I traveled down to his headquarters to spend the day exploring his business. He was very handsome, married with young kids, and totally charming. He drove me around that day to all of his stores, and he had such a delightful way with people, you could tell his employees all just loved him. He was flirty, but never crossed the line, which was one of the reasons I was crazy about him. His was the first car I ever sat in that had a seat warmer. I thought that was the height of luxury!

So in the midst of my interviewing, knowing that I had deadlines and tons of revisions and lots of editor comments ahead, I sat back at my desk and smiled, feeling like that cute girl  who was beginning her first real journalism job, thinking she had the best career anyone could have.

Ah, the pleasure of some nostalgic daydreaming. Sometimes its great being just another working writer!


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