Okay, so you’ve sold an article to a magazine or newspaper. Now what? When do the rights revert back to you? If you did all that research and writing for a one-time payment, then you are squandering your time. Whatever made your article newsworthy is newsworthy to more than the readership of one publication. Who would be interested in this article and what publications appeal to this demographic?
Two months before the rights revert back to you on a published piece, send out a query to another magazine for this article [to publish as a reprint or a new piece to suit the magazine’s readership].
Two sources of information about magazines to consider: Writer’s Market (an annual publication that lists public and private magazines with contact information), and the listing at FreelanceWriters.com (www.freelancewriting.com/guidelines). Look for each magazine’s Writer’s Guidelines or Submissions.
Editors will notify you of their policy regarding reprints. Generally, the larger the magazine, the less likely they are to buy reprints. You can tell the size of the magazine by the number of subscribers they have. However, once you have done the research on an article and topic, you can rewrite the article with a new angle or slant or perspective to suit the next publication.
EXAMINE YOUR TARGET PUBLICATIONS
What topics do they cover? Review a year’s worth of back issues if the publication is a monthly magazine. List the topics they publish and how they were handled. You don’t want to pitch an idea they have recently published unless you offer a remarkably different approach. Get familiar with the tone and length and style of the magazine’s features. You won’t find the same writers in Rolling Stone and the Christian Science Monitor though both publications debate the language used in song lyrics.
Who are their advertisers? Review the advertisements to see which businesses and products appeal to the readership. If your topic or story impacts these particular businesses, then interview an expert from one of the advertisers. If you go to the publication’s website, look for an Advertiser’s Index. Also pay attention to the ads in the publication.
Who are their readers? Magazines often give demographics on their readers in their writer’s guidelines and in their advertising section. They will also describe the magazine’s purpose and targeted readership in their “About Us” section of their website.
A CASE STUDY
Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base celebrated its 40th Anniversary in business in 2003. While this fact might not rock your wings, it was cool news to pilots all over the world. Brown’s has taught more people to fly seaplanes than any other seaplane base or school in the world. Astronauts, celebrities, missionaries, adventurers, and about 500 general aviation pilots per year have learned how to splash and go, earned their Seawings, and told tall tales at Brown’s.
As a writer/pilot, I was asked one December to write up an article on Brown’s anniversary for WaterFlying magazine, the magazine for the Seaplane Pilots Association. While it is a limited readership, it is devout, and worldwide. My article and my photographs appeared in the March issue. You can read it on my website through this link: https://jonimfisher.com/jack-browns-seaplane-base/.
So this news is newsworthy for the whole year. Who else might want to read about it? By the end of January I knew my article would appear in the March issue of WaterFlying and the rights would revert back to me by June.
Well, Brown’s uses Piper aircraft, so I queried Pipers magazine in January to see if they were interested. I also queried AOPA magazine, which is the membership publication of 500,000 Airplane Owners and Pilots Association.
Pipers wanted my photographs and my article for its cover story. And wow, they added their own stunning photos of yellow J-3 Cubs on floats landing on sparkling water, which gave my article more appeal. They published it in November. So there is some overlapping readership between WaterFlying and Pipers, but not all seaplanes are Piper aircraft. For the Pipers article, I beefed up the information about the aircraft’s 40 years of reliability and safety at Brown’s Seaplane Base. To read that article, click on this link: https://jonimfisher.com/jack-browns-seaplane-base-celebrates-40-years/.
I also published an article on Brown’s as a long-standing business for the local newspaper. Many locals were not aware that they had a seaplane training base in the county, so they were surprised to know it was famous in aviation. While the local newspaper article paid peanuts, it put me in good stead with Brown’s. The positive publicity helped offset the occasional complaint about the noise of the aircraft from lakeside homeowners. The locals tend to whine less about the noise when they consider Jimmy Buffett or Alan Jackson might be in those little yellow planes landing on their lake.
In June, AOPA said they were interested. Alas, Pipers was publishing it in November and contracted for 30 days of rights after publication, so the year would run out before I got my rights back. I had published with AOPA before, so I explained my situation to the editor and gave him the contact information for Brown’s Seaplane Base so one of his staff writers could cover it. The editor was happy he could write about it without fear of poaching my idea and gave me another assignment a month later. Win win.
The income earned from the first three publications paid for the week it took to research, write and take photographs for the article.
Once you become known for a topic, you can become an editor’s go-to person for future stories. As a freelance writer, I could write aviation articles for my local paper as a stringer, or on-call writer. But I would not give them exclusive rights to my work because I want to continue to write for magazines. When writing an article for both local and national publication, the topic can be the same, but the focus changes to suit the readership. For example—What is the impact to the local readers, local laws, local economy? I would interview local sources for local stories; national experts for national stories.
I am also known to various editors as an aviation writer in central Florida, so I get called to cover stories nearby. Every April the second largest general aviation gathering in the US happens in Lakeland, Florida. SUN ‘n FUN is big news in general aviation so for the last two years I have been a stringer for General Aviation News in April.
Having read about this case study, which of these magazines would you choose to publish in?
Plane and Pilot Magazine is designed for private pilots and owners of light aircraft. This monthly magazine features articles on new and used aircraft, pilot proficiency, avionics, weather and more. Circulation: 110,140. Buys all rights.
AOPA Magazine is a membership publication of The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to general aviation. AOPA has fought to protect the freedom to fly while keeping general aviation safe, fun, and affordable. Circulation: 500,000. Pays on contract, in advance. Buys First North American Serial Rights.
If you publish an article as a reprint, contact the first publisher for wording of the endnote—such as: This article [or portions of this article] previously appeared in the November, 2012 edition of Field & Stream magazine.
This is also known as attribution, when you give credit to the first publisher of your article. If the article is available online in the publication’s archives, then you could also provide a link to the original for the editor of the second publication.
Look back through your personal collection of writings. If you own the rights to them, why not update them and resell them? What was it in the original article that was newsworthy? You can’t make money from the stuff while it sits in your files. Can you put your archives to work? What about follow-up stories? Anniversaries of an event? Change of leadership news?
To read or to receive similar articles delivered to your email inbox go to: www.jonimfisher.com.
Usually a magazine buys the right to publish the article for a specific period of time, after which the rights revert back to you. For example: ABC Magazine buys your article on fly-fishing techniques and publishes it in their March issue. In their contract they hold rights for 60 days after publication. So you can resell the article in whole or in part for publication in June, which means you need to query other magazines in March.
Timing of Payment and Publication Date
Ah, but what if ABC Magazine buys the article in January and doesn’t publish it until June? Well, you can’t publish reprints until September. If they sit on your article for six months and they are paying you for First North American Serial Rights until 60 days after publication, then you cannot publish the article elsewhere while it idles on the desk of an editor.
First North American Serial Rights
Basically, this means that the work is original and appearing for the first time anywhere in North America. If you have published an article on your website, blog or other online source that is accessible to anyone without logging in through a password, then the article is considered public and published. However, if only select readers can access your article/blog through subscription or password, then the article would not be considered public and you could sell it to a print publication as original under First North American Serial Rights. The argument is that if the article/blog is available for free, why should anyone pay for it?
The rights to publish your article worldwide should be spelled out in the contract. Are you negotiating with a magazine that publishes in other languages? If so, how are they compensating you for the worldwide distribution of your article?
Online or Electronic Rights
The rights to publish or archive your article on a publication’s website or for e-reader devices should be spelled out in the contract. For example: an article I published in Marriage Partnership (circulation 000,000) gave me terrific exposure to readers of Christianity Today. When Marriage Partnership folded, my article stayed on the Christianity Today website. Why would I object to exposure to 2.5 million subscribers? When they asked to keep my article in their archives, I gave permission for free. I had already sold five versions of this article to various aviation magazines, so I had tapped out the market for the article.
After the rights revert back to you, you are free to sell the article to another publication or publications.
Second Serial or Reprint Rights
All or portions of the article have been printed or published before elsewhere so what you are selling is Secondary or reprint rights. Often the second publisher will pay up to half the fee of the previous publication, or their own set fee for reprints. However, if you substantially rewrite the article, say 50 percent of it for the second publisher’s readership, then you could negotiate a higher fee than the straight reprint fee. This is up to the publisher and will be spelled out in the contract.
However, there are magazines, like Reader’s Digest, that buy ALL rights forever and anon. This gives Reader’s Digest the right to reprint the article online, and in print, anywhere in the world whenever they please forever, and to change the content. Keep this in mind if you are tempted to sell them an article in your area of expertise. Similar articles that you publish anywhere else could be challenged as infringing on the rights of Reader’s Digest.
Work for Hire
Freelance writing is not the same as writing a work For Hire. In a work for hire, the writer gets paid a one-time fee for producing an article, ghost-writing a novel or preparing a document, such as policies and procedures, or a speech. In a work for hire, the employer or buyer owns the rights to the work. Only the employer or buyer can sell the work for publication or use. The employer has the right to put his name on the work and leave yours off. Example Work for Hire contract wording:
[Employer] shall own all right, title and interest in and to the Work, and all additions to, deletions from, alterations of or revisions in the Work, and all drafts, notes, concepts, ideas, suggestions and approaches related thereto or contained therein, or other materials developed or furnished by [Employer], and each element and part thereof (collectively, for purposes of this Agreement, the “Properties”).
Without limiting the foregoing, Writer hereby acknowledges that the Work and services hereunder and all results and proceeds thereof, including, without limitation, the Properties are works done under [Employer]’s direction and control and which have been specially ordered or commissioned by [Employer] for use as a contribution to a work to be published and that all such services, results and proceeds shall be considered a work made for hire and [Employer] shall own all right, title and interest therein. Writer hereby acknowledges that [Employer] shall be the owner of the Properties for purposes of copyright and shall own all the rights in and to the copyright of the Properties and only [Employer] shall have the right to copyright the same which [Employer] may do in its name or in the name of its assignee(s). To the extent that the Properties or any materials contained therein or prepared therefore or the copyrights therein do not vest in [Employer] by reason of same being a work made for hire, Writer hereby grants, assigns and transfers to [Employer] all right, title and interest in and to the Properties and all materials contained therein or prepared therefore and the results and proceeds thereof to the extent that Writer has had or will have any right, title or interest therein.
[Employer] shall have the sole and exclusive right throughout the universe in all languages and in perpetuity to use and exploit all or any part of the Properties and all or any part of any material contained therein or prepared therefore, whether or not used therein, in any format or version, by any means and in any media, whether now know or hereafter developed.
Without limiting the foregoing, Writer hereby waives any and all claims that Writer may now or hereafter have with respect to the results and proceeds of the Work.
Watch out for any contract that has an Indemnification Clause. Let’s say you write an article on a controversial subject and someone decides to sue the magazine because of it. An indemnification clause typically means that the writer, not the magazine, will bear the brunt of the legal defense. Do not accept such a responsibility, because there are nutty folks out there who will sue without cause. Even a frivolous lawsuit can quickly become expensive to defend.
National Writers Union
The National Writers Union, an organization representing over 1300 freelance writers, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Members of the NWU have access to legal counsel through the organization as one of the benefits of membership. When I last checked, they offered example contracts and advice to their members. Consider joining a large writers association for information on the latest issues on contracts, taxes, marketing, and the other business aspects of writing.
In my experience, magazine editors have been easy to work with and the contracts simple. With one new magazine, the editorial staff had not yet developed a contract for use, so I modeled mine after one used by another, larger magazine.
A Kill Fee is paid to the writer if the article is not published, but a contract has been signed. There will be times in the career of a freelance writer when the publication they are contracted with stops publishing. If you have a kill fee clause, then you should get paid all or a percentage of the fee you would have been paid for publication. Once in a while a magazine will pay a kill fee to hand off your story to a staff writer to give that writer more time to develop the story or to include it in a special issue. If the magazine goes into bankruptcy, then the kill fee might not get paid.
While this blog does not cover all the aspects of contracts, it gives an overview of the contract and the major points to consider when negotiating as a freelance writer.
Writing fillers and sidebars can offer quick and plentiful spin-off sales from your research. At 500 words or less, they are concise. When submitting these to magazines or other publications offer bunches of them at a time for the editor to choose from because only the editor knows the upcoming themes and topics for future issues.
Familiarize yourself with the type and number of fillers used by the publication and tailor yours to fit the readership. Many publications list their Editorial Calendar on their websites. Aside from the usual holiday theme issues, magazines often combine articles on a specific topic for an issue. So timing your submission to suit their topic schedule improves your chance of having your fillers and sidebars accepted.
Always include fillers and sidebars with feature articles or news pieces and editors will adore you.
The types of filler categories are: informative, links, and humor. Watch for them in magazines to see how they are used.
Quick news bites and tiny features are a great entry into national magazines. These quick bits in “front-of-book” appear before the longer feature articles in a magazine. They also keep your name in front of the editors. If you continue to offer quality quick bits in your area of expertise, then you could be approached to write a feature article on this topic or area of interest.
As you research a topic you will come across interesting bits of info that don’t merit a full article. Keep a file of these. You never know when your collection will become relevant or trending.
People are attracted to stories by visuals. In photos, always identify individuals in the photo by full name, as they appear from left to right, row by row. Use your original photos only. Do not swap out heads, or blot out things in the photo. The publisher, particularly a news publisher, requires the clean original.
Prepare a permission form and get it signed by people in your photographs so you can use the photo with the article. It will be up to the editor whether or not to use the photo, but if the editor wants to use it, he will probably ask for you to get a permission slip signed. Why chase after someone weeks after you took the photo? The permission slip is also a backup for getting the person’s name spelled correctly. Let the person know that it isn’t up to you whether or not the photograph will be used, it is up to the editor.
If photographs are being used to show steps of a process, be sure to caption them with numbers for each step. They could pass through many hands before they are published.
TYPES OF FILLERS AND SIDEBARS
Informative Fillers and Sidebars:
How-to steps, statistics, news bits
Evaluations, quizzes, warning signs
Humor, top-ten lists
Odd facts or historical data
Charts, graphs, maps
Prayers for specific needs
Photographs with captions
Websites, social media sites and connections
Phone numbers for help, toll-free or list by state or major city
Helpful books on this topic by experts
Agencies, organizations, clubs
Scriptures that help
Where to get help, support groups, experts, blogs
How to help
Lists of funny but true things
Original cartoon (do not use any cartoon without the express written consent of the artist and expect to pay for the use of the cartoon)
FORMATS OF FILLERS AND SIDEBARS
Filler formats range from creative shapes, colors, cutouts and such. Many offer information that is perennial or evergreen, while others are tied to trends or current events. Taking the same information and targeting it toward different readership groups can make the sidebar or filler even more marketable. Formats:
Bullets, shapes and icons can liven up the bullets
Numbered lists (list items by order of importance or as steps in a process)
Acrostics—ABCs of the subject or topic in which each line item begins with a letter of the alphabet. A is for Accuracy, B is for Brevity, C is for Clarity….
Quiz and the answer key
List of scriptures or famous quotations connected to the topic
List of materials needed or steps to perform
Charts. Compare/contrast, document trend or change. Design a chart or graph if it will dramatize a point accurately.
Prayers. Chapter summaries. Mini devotionals.
Games. Crossword puzzles. Fill in the blank.
Study each publication to see how it uses fillers and sidebars and submit yours to match theirs in style and format.
Writing an article or blog for publication involves selecting a topic, narrowing the topic, gathering research, perhaps interviewing content experts, and then finally writing a draft. Think of each article, essay, or blog as exploring an idea. An idea is a topic or subject combined with an approach or slant. Find the idea that matters to you to pursue and develop. For example, if the theme or topic or subject of your writing is music, then the slant or approach to the topic could be “How to Compose Music with an iPad.”
Develop a statement that captures your story idea in 25 words. Post this where you can see it to keep your focus. Find the fresh perspective or slant or attitude toward this subject. Target your ideal readership by demographics (age, education, location, income, experiences). Why should this target reader want to read your article?
Develop a headline and subhead.
Write your grabber lead sentence and keep it short, 8 to 15 words. Put the grabber fact or quote first. In journalism, this grabber is called a hook. Yes, as in fishing. You have to hook the reader to get him to read your article. Of all the reading material out there, why should the reader choose yours? Make it compelling, weird, funny, or deeply true to draw in the reader to whom your story should matter.
Develop your main points and state them at the top of clean pages. Jot facts, ideas, and examples to support the statement and so on for each page’s main point. List experts, sources for more research, myths and misconceptions about this issue, scripture or other references related to each main point.
Organize the structure or layout of the whole piece. What is the logical order of the main points? Which order will deliver the smoothest flow? Chronological? Outside to inside? Bigger to smaller? General to specific?
Write. Flesh out each main point. Keep sidebars in mind. What is the take-away value from each of these points? Think relevance and practicality for the particular readership of your targeted publication. Keep notes on how the article can be refocused for other readerships.
Step away from the desk. Go work on a different project. Come back later and read the article like a reader, fresh and objective. Trim excess. Readers are busy people, so show you value their time.
Edit, rearrange, delete, refine and hone everything to the focus of the piece. Read it aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to it. Polish it.
NOTICE THE ADVERTIZERS
Is there any way to tie their products or business into the story? Quote one of their experts? Don’t use them just to drop their name, but why pass up a willing source, a source that already ties itself to this publication? Do not use the advertiser or sponsor in a bad light or the article will get tossed or heavily edited. Publishing is a business, so respect the publisher’s business interests. The publisher is not going to bite the hand that feeds it. Nor should you.
Go deep into your topic to build a compelling read. Craft it like a story so it flows smoothly and is easy to follow.
Tom French, a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the changes between his generation and another generation of students in high school. The series of articles he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times became the basis of his book South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century. He took the facts, the people and the situation and told it like a story, using skills of fiction writing to present non-fiction.
When submitting your article or story, break the article into subheadings to make the editor’s work easier. Be sure to include sidebar information, such as statistics, facts, addresses for more information, national hotlines, or associations related to the topic of the article. Include a bibliography of sources to help the fact-checker verify every fact in the article.
Include a bionote (a one or two sentence description of you tied to the article) that includes your website or credentials. Most authors also include the title of their most recent book, especially if it relates to the topic of the article. The bionote generally appears at the beginning or end of an article to tell the reader something about the author of the piece. Here is an example bionote I used for a flying magazine at the end of a feature article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base: Joni M. Fisher is a journalist and instrument-rated private pilot who learned to fly land planes at Brown’s Seaplane Base in 1996. Contact her through www.jonimfisher.com.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER
What is the history of this topic, this person, this place? What is the historical perspective? What legends and myths are connected to this place? Where is the future headed? Extrapolate the trends and their potential impact. Who is predicting the future of this place, this topic, this technology? What does the man on the street believe? History has flavor.
Quantity, locale, diversity and intensity. How big is this anyway? Does the story reach beyond the local to the regional to the national to the global? Does it affect only one industry? How many different ways does this event, this news affect others? (Shutting down one major shipping port in the U.S. causes what?) How deeply does this news affect people’s lives? Does it affect the CEO and the hourly worker the same? Does it affect the elderly the same as toddlers?
Seek sources at different sides of an issue, but also at different levels of involvement. The academic may be an expert, but how much hands-on experience does he have? In proving a point, use different kinds of proofs. Facts, testimonials, quotes from experts blended together make a stronger point than three quotes from three experts or just listing fact after fact. Even if they all say the same thing, they say it in different ways so the repetition drives the point deeper home.
Can this story unfold from development to impact to reaction? Movement can grow from alternating opposites (like changing the focal length of a camera). Abstract/concrete, general/particular, broad view to personal example—shift the reader’s focus. What is the big picture and the telling detail? Take the reader into the story.
Keep it as conversational as possible. Showing off your vocabulary will distance you from your readers. Write in the clearest way possible, as if you are writing to your best friend. Even if you are the world’s leading expert on the topic, you won’t reach people if you preach or dictate to them. Show, don’t tell. If your article seeks to convince people to take action, then do so with facts, testimonials, objective information. Write with honesty and heart and your readers will appreciate it even if they disagree with you.
Always, always satisfy the reader’s question—Why should I care about this? Make the article worth the reader’s time and energy. Pack it with solid value.
A query is a first impression. Prepare to make a great impression with the publisher by being professional and prepared. Look at the publication’s WRITER’S GUIDELINES. See their website or write to them for a copy. The guidelines state how to submit work to them, their target audience, their purpose, pay, lead time, and the rights they purchase.
Look at the publisher’s schedule of topics for the coming months. Allow yourself three months’ lead time to query your article.
When sending a query, mention placement of your article in a specific section or column of the magazine to demonstrate familiarity with the publication. Identify the specific editor of that section or column by name. Do not address a query to Life Editor, but to Ms. Jane Smith, Life Editor. Spell the editor’s name correctly!
If the article is timely, that is its value or newsworthiness expires after a certain date, then you can query multiple magazines and newspapers at the same time. Be sure to note in the query that due to the nature of the article, this is a multiple submission. An example: The 50th anniversary of the moon walk, or the 40th anniversary of a business, the end of a era, the first fundraiser of a new organization or charity. First one that sends a contract wins the race to publication. And if you time it right, you could submit the article as a reprint to another publication that same year when the rights expire on the first publication. More on reprints in another blog.
If the Editor wants a query by snail mail instead of by email, then include clips, and a business card. (By clips I mean copies of previously published articles on this topic.) If you have a website with samples of your work, include this website listing on all correspondence, emails, letterhead, business cards and faxes.
Title Does it capture the essence of the article? Be short, be sharp and direct. If the article or essay is humorous, let the tone show in the title.
One-sentence summary This is always my lead-in statement for the query. Unless the article can be stated clearly in one-sentence, it isn’t ready to send. Show the slant of the article, how it is unique compared to others on the topic.
Opening paragraph Grab attention and set the tone and context.
Theme Two to three sentences that build on the one-sentence summary and opening paragraph and provide a description of what the body of the article will cover.
Word count is this a snapshot of the topic in 400-500 words? Medium length of 700-800 words like an essay? Full-length feature of 1000 to 1200 words?
Submission delivery date Show professionalism with a realistic delivery date and what travel/research/interviews must be done to complete the article.
Photos Detail the images you will provide and their source (taken by yourself, publicity shots, or a photographer) and their format (prints, jpeg files on CD, color, black & white, slides).
Sidebar details Further information on the location, map, prices, etc. on the topic or subject.
Column location Demonstrate your understanding of the publication by naming the section or column that the article suits.
Credentials A four-line bio that details the overview of the topics you have written on and where they have appeared. List three publishing credits in the same genre of the proposed piece. Do NOT skip giving this information by telling the editor to go to your website—the Editor won’t do it.
Clips Submit samples of previously published works on this topic or area of expertise.
A more in-depth explanation of query letters appears in Moira Allen’s book The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals. Moira devotes a chapter to print and electronic queries.
The Writer’s Market sells for under $50 for the print version and more for the combination print and online version. The online version also includes a submission tracker. This is the largest market listing available that I know of.
Before you contact any person for an interview, research that person. Get to know the facts on that person before you approach him, before you mention the magazine you’re writing for. Who are his equals and rivals? Does he like or hate the media? Research the topic as well so you don’t waste the source’s time with basic questions you could answer on your own. What do you have in common with your interview subject? Same college, similar hobbies? This connection can open a door.
One source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. ProfNet is a cooperative of public information officers. The service is free to writers and queries by email are preferred. Send in your request to email@example.com.
Be sure to include:
Name of publication you are working for
Synopsis of the project
Field of expertise desired
Time frame for publication
Preferred method of response (phone, email, snail mail…)
Ask how the expert source wants to be identified (John Smith, author of ABCs of Genius, and Harvard Professor of Psychology….)
Notice the advertisers. Is there any way to tie their products or business into the story? Quote one of their experts? Don’t use them just to drop their name, but why pass up a willing source, a source that already ties itself to your target publication?
Buy a phone line splitter or other device to record phone interviews directly. Always, always ask permission to record the conversation for accuracy. Remember Monica Lewinski’s “friend” who ended up with felony charges for this? Ask for permission to share the interviewee’s phone number with the editor in case of last minute questions or verification. Many top-paying magazines require a transcript of an interview, especially if the subject is famous or speaking on a controversial issue.
Beware of recording an interview in a restaurant or other noisy setting because background noise can drown out your questions and the subject’s answers. If you must interview someone in a restaurant or cafe, choose a quiet time or seek an unused conference room.
Even if you take shorthand or have a perfect memory, record the interview. When transcribing it later, you are likely to encounter a terrific quote or turn of phrase that captures the person’s personality. Reveal the expert as a person, warm-blooded and human, rather than just the expert. Take notes on mannerisms, behavior, habits and other details to bring the reader into the setting of the interview. Capture the smells, sounds, sights, and other details, especially if you are in the interview subject’s home turf.
While it is best to use direct quotes from interview subjects, you can also paraphrase what is said. You will encounter an occasional source who is simply unquotable–run-on sentences, sentence fragments, English as a second language–so listen for meaning as well as for wording.
Ask open-ended, unbiased questions and shut up! The adage in sales is that after the pitch is made the next one to talk goes home with the product. Ease into the tough questions by starting with basics that show you’ve done your research—verify facts on the person—date of birth, place of birth, education, special interests, hobbies.
When interviewing a person always verify the spelling and title of the person’s name. John can be spelled Jon. Check. Verify.
Corroborate information gained from interviews. Do other sources repeat the same information and impressions? Do public records back up the facts?
In a story that stirs controversy; open your mind to see the issue from the side of the interview subject. Verify claims of sources, especially those sources with payback on their minds. Quote exactly and completely if the source’s view is part of the story.
Bring a camera to record images of the interview subject. This helps the writer keep track of who is who and often the magazine will buy the photo if they cannot send a photographer. An animated photo is always better than a static, posed portrait. If the subject has a professional portrait, ask for a copy. Give the publisher good options for images to go along with your article.
Prepare factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Example: Who, what, where, when, why and how.
Prepare explanatory questions, to get reasons, to broaden discussion, to develop additional information. Examples: “In what way would this solve the problem?” “What other aspects of this should be considered?” “How would that be done?”
Prepare justifying questions, to challenge old ideas, to explore reasoning. Examples: “Why do you think so?” “How do you know?” “What evidence do you have?”
Prepare leading questions, to advance a suggestion to others, to introduce a new idea. Examples: “Would this alternative work?” “What other ideas have you considered?”
Prepare hypothetical questions, to explore an unpopular opinion, to change the course of the discussion. Examples: “Suppose you did as your opponent suggested…What would happen?” “How do other cities handle this issue?” “Are alternative fuels usable in this vehicle?”
Prepare decisive questions, to choose between alternatives, to develop consensus. Examples: “Which solution is better—A or B?” “What is the next step to implement the change?” “Do you believe the public will agree to the company’s plan?”
Prepare personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Use this kind of question for a profile or feature on the person. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had, Doctor?” “What are three things people don’t know about you?” “What other careers interest you?” “What would you like your friends and colleagues to say about you at your funeral?”
Prepare superlative questions, to find the newsworthy hook. Ask for examples of the biggest, best, worst, most unusual experience the subject has encountered in his work. For example, an orthopedic doctor reveals that after a hurricane he treated 12 people for falls because they were cutting limbs or trees that their ladder was braced on. Every one of them admitted trying to save money by doing it themselves when a professional tree cutter was available.
Always ask your interview subject who else to talk to on this subject. Experts know one another and are more willing to talk if you mention that you have already interviewed one of their equals or rivals.
In writing about Emmy-winning director David Nutter, I sent the request for an interview to him through his agent. During the interview with Mr. Nutter, he mentioned an actor who had worked with him on a previous project. I asked if he would call the actor and let him know I would be calling to ask him a few questions. That call opened the door to the next contact without involving delays and agents.
Ask: “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to tell me?” Listen. You might get info on your next article, an anecdote or other valuable info.
After publication, send a copy of the magazine to each person interviewed in the article with a short thank-you note and business card. When your source encounters another topic that seems newsworthy, who’s he gonna call?
After publication, send a thank you note to the editor with an offer to take an assignment and suggestions or a pitch for a related or follow-up article.