September 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!


Setting Your Freelance Writing Rates

Writing Your Way OutEd. note: this is an excerpt of Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, an e-book by Linda Formichelli that launches today. 

Before you jump into a writing career, you need to be absolutely clear that you are writing for money. You want to leave the rat race, and you need to earn a good income from your writing in order to do so.

Too many writers feel that because they’re new to the game, they need to underprice themselves. Then they get stuck in the limbo of $5 articles, penny-per-word blog posts, and “free sample” case studies—and can’t climb out.

So the question is: How much should you expect for your writing?

Not an easy question to answer. But one thing I can tell you for sure is you should not base your pricing on what other writers charge or what you think the client can afford.

Figure out how much you need to make per year to pay your bills and make a profit that’s acceptable to you. Calculate how many billable hours you’ll be working per year and how much you’ll need to charge per hour to make it work. That number is different for every freelancer.

This is a very simplistic formula. For more detail on setting your prices, download Erik Sherman’s free e-book Planning a Writing Business.

But that’s not the only way to price your writing services. You know what I do when someone asks me for a price? I make one up that feels good to me. (And typically that comes out to $250 per hour.)

I always felt like a slacker doing that, until I read Your Right Price, a free e-book by Mark Silver. He discusses heart-centered pricing, which is basically using your heart and your intuition to determine the right price for you.

Think Hourly

Magazines and online publications typically pay by the word (for example, 50 cents per word), but it’s smart to figure out how much you make per hour with each client. You’ll sometimes find that the $2.00/word client ends up paying you less per hour than the $.50/word client, because the higher-paying client is more of a pain in the butt to work for and requires multiple revisions.

As for copywriting and other forms of writing where you charge by the project, don’t make the mistake of revealing your hourly rate to clients. This opens up an opportunity for the client to micromanage you in order to get the number of hours down, and to question the speed of your writing. (Also, more experienced writers write faster—and why should they be penalized for that?)

Instead, estimate how many hours the project will take, pad it a bit to make sure you’re covered, factor in a couple rounds of edits and revisions, multiply this by your target hourly rate, and quote a project price to the client. (Or do what I do and go with your gut on pricing!)

You Can’t Please ‘Em All

No matter what price you choose, you will lose out on clients who can’t afford you.

That’s okay.

I promise, there are plenty of clients who can pay what you want. So if you set your price at $80 per hour, you will find clients who can pay that, and those who can only budget for $40 per hour will take a pass. If you charge $100 per hour, you’ll miss out on clients who can only pay $80 per hour, but you’ll find yourself getting assignments from that higher tier of clients.

Of course, you must offer enough value to the client to make your price worth it to them. But that said, you don’t need to mold your price strategy to what you think a particular client can afford. That’s a sure route to driving yourself crazy as you try to guess what the client wants to pay.

Linda Formichelli has written for close to 150 magazines since 1997—including Redbook, USA Weekend, Writer’s Digest, Inc., andFitness—and more than two dozen copywriting and content marketing clients. Today (October 10) at 12 pm EDT, Linda is launching her e-book Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, which will help you leave the 9-5 to pursue the career of your dreams. Click on the link to be the first to know about the limited-time low-price offer Linda has in store!


News from the Muse: Generating Ideas, Writing Product Descriptions

PRN-ConnectChat-Susan-Johnston-ts.20130919155653It’s been a busy summer and now an equally hectic fall. Be sure to check back next week for an excerpt from Linda Formichelli’s forthcoming ebook, Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love.

In the meantime, here are a few writing-related projects I’ve been working on:

#ConnectChat: How to Generate Story Ideas: A few weeks ago, ProfNet hosted me for a Twitter chat about generating story ideas, dealing with an idea drought, and sourcing ideas on social media. (The photo at left is from ProfNet promoting the chat on a billboard in Times Square – how cool is that?) In case you missed the chat, click the title to view the recap.

10,000 Hours in 10 Minutes: Susan Johnston on Writing for a Living: Self-serve content engine MediaShower interviewed me about how writing has evolved, staying prolific, and my wackiest writing assignment. I’d love to get your thoughts on these topics so click on over and leave a comment.

5 Tips for Meeting with and Impressing Editors: Grabbing coffee or lunch with an editor is a rare chance to build rapport and get to know him or her on a more personal level. Late last year, I met up with an editor while I was vacationing in New York and that conversation sparked ideas that generated over a thousand dollars worth of freelance articles. Not bad for a half hour meeting, right? For an article in Contently’s Freelance Strategist, I talked to several veteran freelancers about their in-person meeting strategies.

Writing Product Descriptions for Clients: I always look forward to listening to Ed Gandia’s High Income Business Writing podcast, and earlier this summer, Ed hosted me on the podcast to discuss product descriptions. Many copywriters may not have considered this niche but there’s a lot of demand for short, punchy product descriptions, especially as the holidays approach and retailers ramp up their inventory.

7 Steps to Landing More Freelance Assignments

freelancewritingBy David Geer

The more time you spend completing paid writing assignments and the less time you spend looking for them, the more your income increases because your number of billable hours grows. How do you multiply your billable hours? You do it by taking these seven time-tested, field-tested steps to (A) rise to the top of editor’s lists of favorite writers, (B) get new work through existing relationships and (C) build strong relationships with editors who assign a lot of work.

How to Rise to the Top of Editors’ Lists of Favorite Writers

Step One: Turn Work in As Early As Possible

If you can turn work in a week or more early, do it. Turning in work at the last minute with no notice can make editors nervous. Turning it in on time or a little early could net you more work, though you probably won’t stand out from other writers. But turning finished, polished work in exceptionally early makes editors take notice because it is rare.

This does at least two things for you right away. First, it buys you more real estate in the forefront of your editor’s mind. She may assign you another story right away. She will almost certainly be more receptive to new story ideas. Second, if you were really quick, she may see you as a faster, more efficient writer than most and someone who can handle more work simultaneously. She may assign you a couple of pieces next time.

Step Two: Turn In Great Work

Most editors have too much to do to make time for heavy edits. The more polished it is, the easier their job. You save them time.

Step Three: Be Available and Responsive

If an editor loves your work, and needs just one little extra thing here or there, be available, reachable, and prepared to see the project through to completion.

Step Four: Be Professional, Approachable, Likeable and Memorable

A professional attitude that leaves everyone eager to trust you, work with you, and recommend you to others is an asset to you and your editors. Nurture it. People want to work with those they really like to work with. Be approachable and memorable. This always comes back to reflect well on your editors and you.

How to Get New Work Through Existing Relationships

Step Five: It Is Always Easier to Keep An Existing Customer Than It Is to Earn a New One.

This holds true across all businesses, including writing. Whatever the cost to keep an existing editor or client, it will always be harder to find a new one to replace them, and to build that relationship to the same level as an existing customer relationship.

To get new work through existing relationships, simply keep them, maintain them, and nurture them and the new work will come eventually in most cases. Some customers may never hire you again; some will only hire you once in a great while. Some relationships will wane for awhile, and resurge later. Keep them strong and the work will come.

Step Six: Take the Conversation in New Directions

To get altogether new (different) work from existing relationships, realize that you may offer other types of writing that your editor is not aware of while they may need other kinds of work you are not aware of. There may be another area or areas where you can serve the same editor, an intersection between their needs and your offerings that neither of you know exists.

An editor who knew I wrote about technology once told me he didn’t have anything for me. Then he asked me whether I could write about the Internet instead. In my mind, the one is inclusive of the other; in his mind, not so. He was looking for someone to write more at the consumer level about using the Internet rather than about how the technology works. He assumed I could not do that.

Always be restating and expanding the conversation about what you can do and what the editor needs. Otherwise, there may be a pile of work waiting for you that you know nothing about.

How to Build Strong Relationships With Editors Who Assign A Lot Of Work

Step Seven: How to Find Editors Who Assign a Lot of Work

Sometimes, you’ll find out quite by accident who assigns a lot of work when you start writing for a new editor and they reveal their needs. To find out by design, do your research. First, it is much easier for online publishers to quickly put up seemingly countless articles than it is for a print publisher to get as much content out in print in the same period. Start with them.

Look for online publishers with few editors and many publications and/or many articles/much content coming out. Check the author bios. If freelancers write most of the work, these editors hand out a lot of assignments to writers just like you rather than handle them in-house. Simply apply the relationship building tips under Step Five to nurture these relationships and see your workload increase.

DSC_0005David Geer is a 13-year veteran technology writer and journalist whose work appears in numerous publications, such as CSO (Chief Security Officer). Follow David @geercom on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn