October 21, 2014

10 Commandments for Interview Sources

telephoneMany of the sources I interview for articles are the embodiment of professionalism and credibility. They answer their phones when they say they will, offer great quotes, and just generally rock as experts I want to interview again and again. Others flake out, ignore emails, and make me question why I decided to interview them in the first place. This article is for people who fall into the latter category.

Now, if you find writers annoying and don’t need the press because you already have more readers or customers than you can handle, feel free to ignore this advice. But if reporters aren’t asking you for repeat interviews and you want to increase your visibility via media interviews, then consider these ten commandments.

  1. Thou shalt not insist on email.
    I have conducted interviews by email in a few circumstances, but some editors consider this a lazy shortcut (and I definitely don’t want to be seen as lazy). Truth be told, email doesn’t elicit the kind of conversational sound bytes I’m looking for. Yes, it’s much harder to misquote an email as opposed to a phone conversation, but oftentimes responses to emails have been heavily edited to sound bland and corporate.The other reason I try to schedule phone interviews is that it helps confirm there’s a real person on the other end. I’m pretty sure that some of the responses I get to HARO queries (Help a Reporter is  a free service for matching journalists with sources) are made up, and hearing someone’s voice and asking more specific questions (“Where did you say this was? How did your son react?”) helps me apply my BS radar. After all, someone who lies over email may not want to be questioned by phone. Often I’ll ask follow-up questions via email because I’ve already talked to the person and gotten a feel for who they are. If you’re worried about time zone issues, I will do my best to accommodate your schedule. If you’re worried about long-distance phone charges, we can do a Google Hangout or talk via skype. That is not a good reason to bypass the phone.
  2. Thou shalt include contact information in emails.
    Please don’t make me hunt for your phone number. On several occasions I’ve confirmed an interview time and asked for the person’s phone number, only to discover at the appointed hour that they never gave it to me. Include your phone number in your email signature but don’t assume that this is enough. Sources who email me from their smartphone often forget that their iPhone message doesn’t include their email signature.On the other hand, don’t be that person who gives me six billion ways to contact them. “If I don’t pick up my office number, you can try my cell phone or my Google voice number or find me on skype or have me paged or …” Decide what is the best method of contact and be reachable there.
  3. Thou shalt set a mutually agreeable time to talk.
    When sources tell me to call them whenever, it inevitably leads to a game of phone tag. I call them and get voicemail, they call me back while I’m on another call or scarfing down my lunch or on my way to a meeting, and the cycle continues ad infinitum. I’m not the type of writer who wants to catch you at an inopportune time and pressure you to say something you’ll later regret. I’d much rather we choose a time when we’re both relaxed and mentally prepared for the interview. It’s more productive and respectful of both our time. So, please let’s pick a specific day and time. Some of my colleagues use online tools like Doodle to schedule interviews but I prefer to suggest times via email.
  4. Thou shalt consider time zones.
    When someone asks if I’m available at noon, my response is usually, “what time zone are you in? If you’re on EST, then yes.” Always mention your time zone when you’re scheduling an interview. People move around and take their cell phone number with them, so I don’t assume that just because someone has a 617 or 212 number, they’re in the Northeast.When I know someone is in Seattle, I’m less apt to suggest a 9 a.m. interview because that would be 6 a.m. in their neck of the woods and that’s just cruel (unless they volunteer that they’re a morning person or like to squeeze in phone calls before their day job). Likewise, please don’t ask me to do an interview at 5 p.m. PST on a Friday because that’s 8 p.m. my time and I like to power off my laptop for the weekend (on any other weeknight, I’d try to make it work). When someone is in a different time zone, I always list the time in both time zones so in case I’ve made an error, they can correct me (this has only happened once but I’m glad the source spoke up).
  5. Thou shalt not blow off interviews.
    I understand that stuff comes up. Your boss pulls you into a last-minute meeting, you get stuck in traffic, your daughter starts projectile-vomiting moments before our scheduled interview time. All of these are reasonable excuses for not answering your phone. But “I forgot” or “I just rolled out of bed and hadn’t looked at my calendar yet” makes you sound flaky. I often send calendar invites for this very reason. I try to respect your time, so please respect mine. It’s possible that I’ve declined other interviews or rescheduled a doctor’s appointment to accommodate your scheduling request.
  6. Thou shalt respect deadlines.
    Sometimes I have a month to write a story but usually I have to turn it around more quickly than that (which is why I start lining up sources ASAP once the contract is inked). When I write that I need to schedule phone interviews by November 15, please don’t suggest we talk on November 25. If that’s truly the soonest you’re available, then this isn’t going to work.Likewise, it’s helpful to mention if you’re about to leave on a three-week safari without email access. Sometimes my editors ask follow-up questions and expect a 24-hour turnaround time so sources who respond quickly are always appreciated. If I know you’re on safari, I can get the info from someone else (for instance, ask your assistant or a colleague to send photos) or set reasonable expectations with my editor.
  7. Thou shalt send photos (if asked) with photo credits.
    Many times editors want the journalist to collect photos of sources. Don’t bother attaching these to a HARO response, because HARO doesn’t forward attachments. If the reporter asks for photos, please send them along with photo credits. We can’t guess who took the photo, but we want to give that person proper credit. Including it in your original photo email eliminates unnecessary back and forth.
  8. Thou shalt not speak “off the record.”
    I’m a nice person so if you tell me something “off the record,” I’m not going to publish it (though I might be tempted). But other journalists are not so nice. A lot of the things people say “off the record” are actually pretty harmless so they probably don’t need to get their panties in a twist worrying that their boss will read about the time they accidentally brought home a paperclip and fire them. But if it’s so juicy it could get you fired, don’t say it. Save these deep, dark confessions for your friend or your therapist.
  9. Thou shalt make reasonable requests.
    Asking for a link to the article once it runs is totally reasonable in my book. Demanding to be paid for your time or approve the article before it’s published is not (it’s also unethical). Insisting that I link to your blog or mention your book when it’s completely unrelated to the article will not fly. Remember, the writer is being paid by the publication. It’s not the source or publicist’s job to micromanage the writer, review her work, or determine the angle for the piece. I want to represent you accurately but I can’t have your company or your client’s agenda drive the piece. And in some cases, my editors don’t link to anyone, even when it is relevant to the piece. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them, so please don’t take your anger out on me.
  10. Thou shalt not harass the writer.
    Some editors publish articles right away, others sit on them for months. I wish you didn’t have to wait months to see your name in print or online, but sometimes that is the world we live in. Please don’t send me weekly emails asking to know the status of the article or the publication date. Oftentimes I don’t know. But when I assure you I will send you a link as soon as I know one exists, I mean it.

Journalists, anything you’d add to this list?

Sources, do you have any pet peeves you’d like journalists to consider?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Listen up! 5 Podcasts for Freelance Writers

I’m in the midst of packing for a cross-town move this week, so saying things are chaotic is an understatement. More like an office and kitchen supply store exploded in my living room. One bright spot of packing is that it gives me plenty of time to catch up on podcasts I’ve downloaded from iTunes. I also listen to podcasts as I’m washing the dishes, tidying up my apartment, folding laundry, or running errands, and it makes me feel productive even when I’m not typing away on my computer.

In addition to podcasts about online marketing and personal finance, I’ve found a handful of podcasts that offer insights on the craft and business of writing or more broadly explore creativity. Here’s a look at five of them.

  1. A Little Bird Told Me - Freelance writers from across the pond Lorrie Hartshorn and Philippa Willitt discuss “the highs, the lows, and the no-no’s of successful self-employment,” as they put it. Recent podcasts have covered topics like brainstorming ideas, turning one-off clients into regulars, and breaking into new markets. I especially like Lorrie and Pippa’s friendly banter and their charming British accents! 
  2. Longform - Produced by Longform and The Atavist, the Longform podcast is a weekly conversation with a non-fiction editor or writer who produces long-form journalism. My sweet spot seems to be articles around 800 words, so I’m always impressed by writers who can craft a beautiful, cohesive narrative that runs 5,000+ words. Recent guests have included New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox, Vanity Fair and New York contributing editor Vanessa Grigoriadis, and former GOOD editor turned freelancer Ann Friedman.
  3. High-Income Business Writing - You might already know Ed Gandia from The Wealthy Freelancer or the International Freelancers Academy. He recently launched this podcast to explore how business writers can boost their productivity, attract higher-paying clients, raise their fees, and more. A few podcasts have focused on specific niches like white papers or case studies, with Ed inviting a subject matter expert to discuss those niches. Other times, Ed simply speaks from his own experiences as a writer and shares how he made his own business a success.
  4. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing - Need a refresher on word choice, commas, or passive voice? Mignon Fogarty of Quick and Dirty Tips explains the nuances of the English language in short, playful podcasts, often using real-world examples to illustrate the concepts. I especially liked her recent podcast on how texting is changing English.
  5. The Accidental Creative - This podcast isn’t directly tied to writing, but the concept of creativity is one that writers often grapple with. Todd Henry, author of the book by the same name, interviews artists and creative luminaries to find out how they stay productive and inspired even on deadline or under pressure.

Your turn! Are there any podcasts I’ve left out? Which ones are your favorite(s)? Leave a comment and let us know!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Scheduling Social Media Updates While on Vacation: The Pros and Cons

leaving on vacation
Last week, I returned from a 10-day vacation, which I haven’t taken in several years. Although an avalanche of unread emails and deadlines and catch-up work had accumulated in my absence and I returned with an unwanted souvenir (a cold), I felt refreshed and grateful for the chance to get away. A change of scenery and time away from my computer inspired some new story ideas, too. One of the ideas I pondered during my eight hour flight was this post.

In anticipation of the big trip, I alerted my clients well in advance and tried to schedule deadlines before or after my trip.  But with the social media client, I’m responsible for posting daily tweets, Facebook status updates, and the like, so that got into messier territory.

I opted to schedule tweets and status updates to cover my vacation so our feed wouldn’t be dormant while I’m away. I also scheduled one tweet each weekday for my own Twitter feed–and surprisingly, my Klout score remained steady even though I wasn’t actively engaging while I was away. But in talking to other freelancers who have an active social media presence (either for themselves or their clients), I discovered some downsides to this approach. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of scheduling social media updates as well as some other options.


  • No interruption to updates: Even if you run into spotty internet access while you’re away, you can be reasonably sure (see below) that your social media feed will remain active so you don’t lose momentum while you’re away.
  • Efficiency: Posting on social media several times per day eats up valuable time switching back and forth between tasks. Writing a batch social media updates at once but spacing them apart so you don’t overwhelm your followers is a more efficient use of time. I also found that scheduling 10 days worth of tweets made me think more big picture strategy instead of tweeting whatever caught my eye in that moment.
  • More control over timing: Scheduling updates in advance allows you to control when they appear in your feed. If you know that most of your followers check Twitter or Facebook first thing in the morning Eastern Standard Time, for instance, you can make sure you appear in their feeds at that time even if you’re not physically at your computer.


  • Lack of timeliness: If you post about current events in your feed, scheduled tweets could feel stale by the time they actually appear in your feed. I tried to counter this concern by front-loading the feed with timely tweets at the beginning of my vacation and using more evergreen links towards the end. The other issue is that if something catastrophic happens while you’re away (think: Hurricane Sandy or the Sandy Hook massacre), you could look like a jerk for tweeting about fashion or luxury travel during a crisis. My plan was to find an internet cafe and disable scheduled tweets if something like that happened while I was away.
  • Lack of personal interaction: Personal interactions like @ mentions, DMs, or RTs go a long way towards building an online community. Not responding in real time could make you seem robotic or impersonal. One freelancer I spoke with schedules the majority of her tweets while she’s away and checks in periodically to make sure she’s also mixing in a few RTs or @ mentions.
  • Possible tech glitches: Sometimes scheduling software doesn’t work, and that can result in interruptions to your feed. If you’re not actively monitoring your accounts, you may not know about these issues until days later.

If you post on social media for clients, here are some alternatives to scheduling status updates during a vacation:

  • Subcontracting: If your client is cool with it, you may be able to subcontract social media responsibilities to a trusted colleague while you’re away. In my case, I knew that this client wouldn’t be keen on sharing account passwords and access with someone they hadn’t vetted. Of course, you can always reset the passwords once you return. The other issue is making sure that whoever is covering for you understands nuances of the client’s voice and any guidelines on what they should or shouldn’t tweet, because their mistakes could reflect poorly on you.
  • Having the client cover: Depending on how hands-on the client is, they may prefer to handle social media themselves while you’re away instead of handing off the reins to someone else. Of course, this probably means you’ll have to take a temporary pay cut if you’re on a monthly or weekly retainer. You could also send some suggested tweets in advance and have them post at their discretion to avoid the issue of context mentioned above.
  • Posting while away: Some people don’t mind spending a little time each or every other day of a vacation checking social media, especially if they could easily do it from a smartphone or tablet. The downsides of this are, of course, you still have to think about work while you’re away and make sure you have reliable internet access. I didn’t have consistent wifi access and my iPhone didn’t work, so if I’d planned to tweet, it would have created a lot of unnecessary stress. If you’re traveling to a different time zone, you’d either need to factor in the time change as you’re posting or reconcile yourself to the fact that your updates may not appear at the most optimal time for your followers (for instance, if you usually post at 9am ET most mornings and you’re traveling to the West Coast, you’d either have to get up at 6am PT to tweet to your East Coast followers or post later in the day). In my case, I felt it was important to completely unplug to avoid burnout and because I’d be in a foreign country, I wanted to avoid roaming charges or lugging around unnecessary stuff.

Your turn! Do you schedule social media updates while you’re on vacation? How would you handle this situation? Do tell!

Flickr photo courtesy of Helga Weber

The 12 Days of Freelancing

The holidays are upon us, so I have a blog tradition of rounding up posts from across the blogosphere ala The 12 Days of Christmas. Here’s a look at some memorable posts about writing and freelancing from the past year. Happy Holidays!

santa and computerOne Simple Trick for Effective Self-Editing - Freelancedom

Legal Danger for Bloggers: Two Misconceptions, Three Resources, One Suggestion - ASJA’s The Word

Three Books Every Copywriter Must Read -Filthy Rich Writer

Four Ways to Find Your Business Voice - Words on a Page

Five Freelancing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way: Avoid These Career-Killers - Make a Living Writing

Six Ways Bloggers Can Earn More from Their Writing – The Renegade Writer

Seven Knows for Getting Started in Freelancing – Freelancers’ Union

Eight Ways to Master Cold Calls–or at Least Fear Them Less – Dollars and Deadlines

Nine Freelancing Tips for Handling Illness – Freelance Folder

Ten Ways to Use a Writer’s Conference to Market Your Work – WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age

Eleven Rookie Mistakes You Need to Stop Making NOW - Mridu Khullar Relph

Twelve Important Questions to Ask as a Freelance Subcontractor – FreelanceSwitch

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net