Freelance Blog + writing

Working Around Writer's Roadblocks

Earlier this week, I filed a story that had been causing me headaches for several weeks leading up to deadline. The first few times I called the story's key source to schedule an interview, his minions told me to email him or call back later. I did both and still didn't hear a peep.

Finally, I spoke to someone who agreed to set up an interview later that week. But when I called on the appointed day, I was told that this source would be out of the country and in communicado for six weeks! Conveniently, he was scheduled to return to the United States the day after my story was due.

Great.

At first I was really PO'ed at myself for promising a story that now seemed impossible to deliver. This company's website had so many press clips I felt certain the owner understood the value of media coverage! Guess not (because if he did, he would train his staff to take messages and not blow off journalists). Then I got back on the phone and tracked down another source within the company who was able to answer all my questions. Initially they told me that Mr. Jetsetter was the only person who could give interviews, but I persisted.

MIA sources are just one of the roadblocks that writers face. Here's how to handle others.

1. You've tracked down a source but they just won't cooperate. Maybe they've been burned by the media in the past or they're too busy or they don't think their opinion has value. All is not lost. Try one of these tactics.

  • Offer to let them preview the questions. Sometimes this puts the source at ease if they know the types of questions you're asking. I did this last year while I was working on a man on the street piece. If someone was on the fence because they thought I was going to pry into their personal life, I'd say "let me read you the questions and if you're still uncomfortable, you can walk away." Many of them agreed to the interview.
  • Stroke their ego. Avoid making promises like "this will be such great publicity for your book" or "I bet you'll get a ton of traffic to your website," because mentioning a book or linking to their website is ultimately up to your editor. Instead, try telling them how much their advice will benefit your readers and why you chose them out of the dozens of other sources you could have contacted.
  • Find another source. Often threatening to interview their competition will get the person's attention, but sometimes actually walking away is the only way to get the job done. Most fields have enough experts that you should be able to find one who is media-friendly (read Finding Sources Through Social Media for suggestions).

2. You wrote the article, but there's no artwork to go with it. In an ideal world, the art would never be the writer's problem. In reality, writers are often expected to secure artwork and it's often at the last minute. Sometimes a quick call to their PR rep will remedy the situation, but sometimes sources simply don't have high-resolution photos to give you, which can put your article in jeopardy. Before you steal photos from someone's Facebook page (a big no-no), consider these options.

  • You and your digital camera. In addition to being a writer, I'm also a published photographer. My photos are far from professional quality, but they'll do in a pinch. I've been meaning to take a photography class and take my skills up a notch.
  • Your friend, the professional photographer. When I needed high-resolution images of a specific cocktail in a martini glass, I knew I needed to reach out to my network and find a pro. My editor (grudgingly) gave him an honorarium, but some freelancers also work out barter arrangements.
  • Stock art. Often the mere mention of stock images will mobilize your source to scrounge up photos of their own. I've seen it happen multiple times. If not, some magazines will use stock art if they need to.
3. You have a day job, so you can't schedule interviews during the day. Been there, done that, have the stress lines to prove it. Here's how I made it work.
  • Use time zones to your advantage. If your article is national in scope, then schedule evening interviews with sources on the West Coast (if you're based on the East Coast like I am). Or if you're somewhere in the Midwest, get up a little earlier to interview someone on Eastern Time.
  • Conduct interviews via email. This one is a little controversial, but many full time journalists do this to save time. If you need a few quick quotes, then email is often the way to go (just be very specific on when you need the answers). Plus, you'll never have to worry about misquoting someone!
  • Write stuff that doesn't require any interviews. Think: essays, short stories, reviews, roundups, op-eds, travel pieces, and so on, which are based primarily on your own experiences or observations.

4. You're really passionate about an idea, but you can't seem to convince an editor. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Am I overlooking something obvious? Review this checklist of 15 Reasons Your Idea Got Rejected if you're unsure.
  • Is there another way to cover this story? If you'd planned to do an essay, consider pitching it as a feature with an anecdotal lede. If your dating idea isn't getting any interest from women's magazines, think about reslanting it for men or teens instead. Also look at trade vs. consumer angles.
  • Who is my audience and could I reach out to them directly with a blog post or ebook? Self-publishing is becoming increasingly popular, in part because it eliminates assigning editors as gate-keepers. Try to explore any paying market options before posting something on your blog for free. But at least with DIY options like blogs and ebooks, you have a guaranteed outlet for sharing your ideas.
Writers: what roadblocks have you encountered? How did you handle them?

Flickr photo courtesy of Björn Sahlberg

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