What do you think is the best way to make your articles better? These tips for newspaper and magazine writing are especially for reporters – but they apply to all types of writers.
They’re from Vancouver-based publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant – one of my writing mentors.
“Do you see interviewing as a fact-gathering mission?” asks Gray-Grant. “If so, you are missing the opportunity for some fabulous quotes that will make your writing more interesting….”
If your interviews suck, your articles will too. And if your articles suck, you won’t make a good living as a reporter. So, you need to learn how to conduct proper interviews! No matter what type of writer you are – even if you write fiction or poetry – you need to know how to pull the juiciest bits from people.
If you’re not good at interviewing, get your own copy of Interviewing: A Guide for Journalists and Writers.
And, here’s (probably) the best way to write better articles from The Publication Coach…
For Reporters – The Best Way to Make Your Articles Better
Guest Post ~ Daphne Gray-Grant
I like to play games with clients. I don’t mean anything nasty by this! Quite the opposite: I play games because it helps make the learning more fun.
Recently, I had a client – a reporter – who was having a hard time writing stories. I suspected the problem wasn’t so much his writing as his interviewing skills. He didn’t know how to interview effectively enough, I guessed. But I don’t like to form conclusions without doing any research. So, to test the theory, I asked him to interview me.
The Problem Many Reporters Have
Badda boom. His interview exposed the problem as neatly as if I’d dissected his brain and laid it out on a table before me!
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Here’s what happened. I asked him if he knew I was the mother of triplets (pictured above), and he didn’t, so I suggested he interview me about the topic. My exact instructions? “Imagine you’ve been asked to interview me so you can write a 500-750 word story on what it’s like to be the parent of triplets.”
The interview started well enough. He asked me the age and sex of the children (17; two girls and one boy.) He asked me if multiples run in my family (Yes. I have twin cousins and a set of triplets much further back.) Then he asked me if my kids all went to the same school. I told him we homeschooled our kids until they were in grade 10. He asked why and I confessed that our son is both gifted and learning disabled. And here’s where things started to go off the rails.
The reporter, you see, had been trained as a teacher and had a particular interest in the topic of gifted/learning disabled kids. All of a sudden, he started asking lots of questions about my son’s giftedness (music/technology) and learning disabilities (reading/math/focus). I let this line of questioning continue for about five minutes before asking, “Do you think you have enough material to write the story now?” He said he thought so, but when I pointed out that he’d veered completely off topic, he had to agree.
In truth, he had nowhere near enough interesting material on the topic he’d been assigned.
He continued with his questions, now focusing on the topic of triplets. Most of the questions were reasonable but almost all of them were questions of fact –“how do you feed three babies at once?” and “how old were they when they first slept through the night?”
The Best Wayto Make Your Articles Better – For Reporters and All Writers
Never once did he ask for my opinions or feelings about anything. Nor did he ask for anecdotes! And, trust me, I have some great ones… If he had actually written the story, I’m sure it would have been very similar to most of his other articles – filled with dull quotes, instead of lively, action-packed ones. Yet I had plenty of interesting quotes inside me! He just didn’t dig deep enough to find them.
If your writing requires you to interview others, be sure to ask questions seeking opinions and feelings. How did that make you feel? What makes you say that? Why do you think that?
Does interviewing people for your articles freak you out? Read 10 Tips for Interviewing Sources for Articles.
And, give your subject lots of feedback. Wow! That must have been interesting/frightening/rewarding/frustrating/____ (fill in your favourite adjective here.) This kind of feedback is invaluable because if you are wrong, the subject will correct you and if you are right, he or she will likely elaborate. You can’t go wrong with this approach – it’s the best way to make your articles better.
Finally, ask questions that force the subject to give you a real-life example or two. For example, if the reporter had asked me about whether I’d ever had second thoughts about having triplets I might have recalled a time when they were two years old and I decided to walk them to the park. The visit went well but they became tired and refused to walk home. I wound up “ferrying” back, one at a time, carrying them a few yards each so I could keep an eye on the ones left behind. It took me about an hour to walk five blocks.
It’s a great story. Too bad the reporter didn’t ask about it! When you do your interviews, don’t view it as a fact-collecting expedition. Remember that roughly 50% of the material you get should be stories, metaphors and opinions. If it’s not, you’re not asking the right questions.
For more writing tips from a pro, read A Reader’s Digest Editor’s 10 Writing Tips.
What say you, fellow scribes? How are your interviewing skills…and do you think it’s really the best way for reporters to write better articles?
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a brief and free weekly newsletter on her website. Subscribe by going to The Publication Coach.
Gray-Grant also contributed 8 Stress Management Tips for Writers and 5 Essential Tips for Better Writing From a Publication Coach.