Interviews & Oral Histories: #4

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

You’ve done it!  Regardless of whether an interview is the first or the hundredth, I hope you will feel a sense of accomplishment while parting company with whomever you’ve interviewed! By this point, you should have an audio (if not visual) recording of the dialogue, plus notes you’ve composed prior to and during your conversation. You should also have a signed interviewee release that can allow you to draw from the experience indefinitely.

The Significance of Your Relationship with Your Subject
In my last discussion of general and oral history interviews, I noted that it is good to impress your subject positively.  Doing so includes: projecting a pleasing appearance and voice; demonstrating the level of your commitment, as shown by your research and organization of pertinent questions; and, your sensitivity to their physical, mental, and emotional circumstances.

That last issue is one that is often neglected by professional, as well as novice, interviewers.  Too often a sense of righteousness on the part of the interviewer as truth teller can prevent development of a significant rapport with the interviewee.  While it is important to maintain a professional relationship, the lack of a rapport with your subject may lead to a diminished level of trust and desire to reveal themselves fully.

Your Parting Words
As you prepare to depart from an interview, you will want to leave the door between you and your subject open to further communication.  After all, they’ve trusted you with a part of themselves and they want to know that you’ll value what they have shared with you. Even if you have not established a warm relationship, you will want to facilitate future communication and assure them that they will have an opportunity to view a transcript of the interview.

This does not mean you are relinquishing your role as the interviewer, nor does it imply you are going to change revealing the realities of your conversation. However, if errors are found by either of you, there should be a means for adding explanatory notes. This is especially useful in clarifying names, relationships, numbers, dates, and sequences, which may have been transposed or mistakenly described.   

Editorial Procedures
During the transcription and editorial process, you may need to communicate with your interviewee to gain clarity on numerous points. To maintain accurate records, it is good to receive replies to your questions by email or other written documentation

This is especially useful if there are conflicts regarding the meaning of a passage. After all, the interviewee is relaying answers to your questions through the lens of their point of view.  While you  may never agree with their explanation, the transcript and your notes will allow future readers and/or listeners to experience a close approximation of the event and draw their own conclusions.  This is why clear records of all your communication and notes are so important.

The method[s] of annotation you choose for your transcript can take several forms. This is where your creativity comes into play.   Personally, I try to avoid footnotes.  Instead, I employ bracketed statements for minor clarification and section endnotes for issues dealing with proper nouns and other facts that may stimulate a future reader to pursue answers to their own questions.

Although the interviewer should not remove actual dialogue, you can provide clarification of key points by including a glossary of foreign and specialized vocabulary, as well as an index. Some authors dislike the use of indices if they plan to publish via a downloadable vehicle that may render pagination inaccurate and irrelevant. However, readers of a work published on the Internet may be able to utilize a find/search tool to locate terms they wish to revisit and readers of a hardcopy edition will be pleased with the inclusion of an easy reference tool at the back of the work. 

Another means for heightening the usefulness of your final product is separating your transcript into sections. If the interview was conducted during multiple sessions, utilization of chapter breaks is quite logical. Even when the conversation was held on a single occasion, separating sequenced questions and answers provides natural breaks.

Such a layout should facilitate communication between you and your subject[s] as you review the nearly finished project. Once you have completed editing and annotating your transcript, you can proceed to shaping a final format to meet any requirements for publication. [See my previous blog, Interviews & Oral Histories #3, for the closing  discussion of interview publication.]

Future Interviews with The Subject
The potential for scheduling future interviews may depend on issues beyond a mutual desire to do so. For example, if the interview is part of a larger project controlled by someone else, you may be limited in continuing your relationship with your subject.  And, although the current publisher may express an interest in further interviews, shifts within their organization may preclude future publishing through them. Even when you are working on a wholly freelance basis, your ability to publish may depend on your finding a new source willing to take on the project. And if you decide to expand the initial work into a series of articles or even a book, the task may become even more challenging.

As I’ve noted before, planning, executing, and publishing an interview is a unique experience. Even without the permanency of the Cloud, an interview lives far beyond the event itself! The effort you put into researching your subject’s life and work may prove of interest to people far beyond your targeted readership.  The dialectical elements of the conversation, introductory remarks, annotations, and other explanations will serve not only to illuminate your subject, but also your own life’s work.

In my next blog about interviews, I will discuss the renewal and publication of oral history interviews I conducted more than 25 years ago with a dear Hawaiian auntie whose family history is very interesting…The title is, Conversations with Caroline Kuliaikanu`ukapu Wilcox DeLima Farias.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder,  Conversations with Caroline Kuliaikanu`ukapu Wilcox Delima Farias, and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website, ImaginingsWordpower.com.  

Interviews & Oral Histories, # 3

Conducting the Interview

Few people willingly give up control of their personhood to allow a stranger to delve into their inner thoughts.  But those private thoughts are what an effective writer must access to produce a true facsimile of any interview they conduct.  For as a professional or even an amateur writer, your goal is to meet your listeners or readers expectations that they are sharing your sensory experience while gleaning the particulars of why the highlighted individual is worthy of their attention. 

There are four statements I can make about my perspective on the interviewing process:

~  The interviewer has one chance to make a good first impression
~  The interviewer may not get another opportunity to interview their subject
~  Despite a subject’s agenda, an interview should encompass a non-fiction record of fact
~  Regardless of the premise for an interview, the subject may become reluctant to speak about topics previously authorized for discussion

The Importance of Preparing for Interviews
In several blogs, I’ve stressed the importance of preparation to conduct both general and oral history interviews.  In contrast, there are some writers who feel that research and other preparation is unnecessary, or even unwarranted.  I strongly disagree.  I believe research is vital to empowering your words in the interview process.  It will also help with establishing your credibility as a wordsmith who has mastered the art and science of writing.  In short, it’s one of the best ways of demonstrating your skill at the art of communication and making your subject trust you.

Contrary to the theory that “winging it” in an interview demonstrates you are a “common man,” and therefore likely to establish a connection with your interviewee, I’ve observed the results of people who conduct interviews without appropriate research.  For when an interviewer demonstrates little knowledge of their subject, their interviewee may judge them inconsequential.  If that is the case, responses to the interviewer’s questions may be superficial.  In fact, the subject  may be thinking, “If you don’t care enough to do your homework, why should I care about your project?  So I’ll just keep the kernels of my truth to myself until the right interviewer comes along.”

Summarizing Your Research
By the time you’re ready to conduct a cogent interview, you should have completed a great deal of fact checking in several areas of your subject’s life, including:

~  The historical era of their life and the category of work they’ve performed
~  Their biography and career…as reported by them, and as available in public sources
~  Materials they’ve published, and speeches and interviews they’ve given previously
~  Comments their colleagues and other contemporaries have expressed about them

 Shaping Your Questions
The bulk of your questions will be determined by the purpose of your project. In some cases you’ll need to conduct interviews with multiple persons.  By asking parallel questions of each, you can compare and contrast their views of the primary subject, as well as one another.

Regardless of whether there’s any obvious controversy you must address, beginning your interview with general questions about the unfolding of the subject’s life, can assist in putting them at ease…if their mental processes are fully functioning and there are no hidden elements in their early life.

By delivering the early portion of your questions chronologically, your interviewee can mentally relive moments with which they should be comfortable. Additionally, taking them through the recognizable patterns of the decades of their life may trigger remembrance of small details.  This will not only enhance the interview itself, but also add color to your subsequent reporting of the event. This can, of course, lead to some sidetracking, but you should be able to steer the conversation back to the key points you need to cover.

Prior to, or during the interview, you may uncover facts about your subject’s life and work that are at odds with information the person has released in the past In this case, you’ll have to decide whether to directly question these inconsistencies. Of course, you’ll want to keep in mind that true or false, the opinions of others may have colored the public record.  Also, the perspectives of most people change with time and life experience.  And, whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has gaps in their memory, without necessarily being conscious of it.

Approaching the Interview
It’s nearly show time.  That’s right.  I said show time.  While serious scholars and journalists may dislike hearing me say it, an interview is usually a semi-public performance.  Unlike a play, the dialogue is not set in stone; unlike an evening at an improv theatre, it’s not without direction and form—for that’s your job.  But like a play on Broadway, it will be frozen in time, even if you conduct subsequent interviews.

Location of the Interview
It’s been my experience that interviewees often set and control the location of the interviews they grant.  This may not be the case for broadcast media and bloggers with sets in which the subject is expected to appear, but you are probably not working in these situations. Admittedly, it’s best to conduct an interview at a site to which you’re both agreeable, but sometimes you must accept interviewing your subject in their office, home or other location of their choice.  Nevertheless, there are things you can do to balance the situation so that you’re able to subtly declare your professional standing, while still putting the person at ease. 

There are many authoring strategies that can help to distinguish your work as an interviewer.  Establishing a good rapport can be the key to making the interviewee trust you with the information they’re imparting.  To do this, you might bring something with you to enhance the experience.  This could be an edible item, or, if you know they are fond of a particular author, you might obtain a copy of that writer’s work to share with your subject.  Please note that I’m not suggesting you spend a significant sum of money to buy your subject’s cooperation.  But small acts of kindness can help warm the atmosphere, demonstrate the thoroughness of your preparation, and make the entire experience positively memorable for both of you.

Interviewer Anxieties
Anxiety will undoubtedly arise, regardless of your preparation.  Despite previous contact you may have had with a subject, being in their presence (even by video conferencing or telephone) changes the balance of your relationship. There is another factor that may detract from your rapport with your interviewee:  If there’s an aspect of their lives that makes them suspect in the eyes of the public, they may be hesitant about granting you an interview.  They may be apprehensive about information you may have uncovered already…or what they might reveal in conversation with you. 

The Atmosphere of the Interview
Even when you have secured the location for holding the event, you cannot be certain of being able to completely control the environment.

~  Despite previous agreement, additional people may be present during the event
~  As recording devices can fail, carry a back-up unit, cordage and microphones with you
~  Regardless of their response, your subject may be distracted by ringing telephones and other interruptions

As you set up your equipment, be aware that recognition of the permanency of the record of their interview may be upsetting to your subject. Even if you have provided them with a copy of your primary questions, they may dislike seeing the list set out before them.  They may also have negative feelings about seeing any reference notes you’ve brought. But since such materials should be in easily read styles and sizes of fonts, you’ll be able to quickly reference pertinent facts, while maintaining eye contact and keeping the dialogue between you as natural as possible. 

The Ebb and Flow of Your Interview
Establishing and maintaining a smooth flow of conversation is a primary goal in the interviewing process.  Regardless of whether your personal views are in accord with those of your interviewee, it’s important to approach what they have to say with a calm, if not fully open mind.  This does not mean that you have to forfeit your role as the honest broker of truth.  However, you can adjust your personal style of behavior and other elements to maximize a positive atmosphere. After all, as in any natural conversation, your subject will periodically lead the discussion. That’s fine as long as they do not deviate greatly from the purpose of your dialogue, or delve into personal details of your life.

Be Prepared for Shifts During Your Interview
After opening pleasantries, you can help direct the flow of the interview by verifying the amount of time you’ll have with your subject.  This establishes a guideline for both parties and should make your periodic redirection of topic easier to explain.

Although you’re guiding the overall direction of the conversation, information will arise that may surprise you, or at least call for cursory examination. This may occur because the man or woman to whom you are speaking may have talking points of their own that they wish addressed.  If that’s so, let them express their concerns, and then try to deftly redirect them to the specific information you need in order to complete your project.

The Editorial Process
Sometimes an author feels stressed about the relationship between the creative process and editing.  As you review an interview, you will not only want to envision how you will shape an accurate account of the event that reflects truly inspired writing as well.  One thing that can help you achieve this dual pronged goal is to remember that the way in which you report your findings may be wholly different than the substance and sequence of the questions you posed. 

For example, if you’re part of an oral history project, there may be a specific format for you to follow.  This generates a record that harmonizes with the results of other interviewers within the larger body of work.  Typically you’ll prepare a transcript of the actual dialogue between you and the subject—often with punctuation or other markings to indicate accents, pauses, stresses, and other notable features of your conversation.  You may also write an introductory passage explaining your methods of preparation and your evaluation of the results you’ve achieved.

If you’re working on assignment for a media outlet, you might have the opportunity to write a personable article containing both dialogue and narrative prose. In this case, you may be allowed to offer your candid view of the person you’ve studied.  Be aware, if you’re working as a freelance researcher and writer, you may need to prepare multiple versions of your report in order to secure one or more appropriate outlets for its broadcast or publication.  I should note that there are situations when an interview will be available to only a select audience, or may be held in private for release at a future time.

As you finalize your work on an interview, you’ll want to remember that in this day of permanency in data recording and retrieval, the words you shape after the interview will live as long as the event itself.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

 

 

 

Taming a Writer’s Clutter: #1, Thinning the File Forrest

You may have stumbled into this blog without an apparent need to address the topic.  You may not be part of a group planning to generate an anthology.  And, regardless of whether you are an amateur or professional writer, you may not think you would ever wish to publish a collection of your individual pieces.  Yet over time, a number of works, large and small, may have accumulated in your electronic as well as hardcopy files. It’s simply part of the life of a wordsmith. And whether you realize it or not, handling your files is part of the editorial process!

Reviewing Previously Composed Works
It might be relatively simple to assemble a publishable collection of your work, if you find a repeating theme.  Sadly, it’s more likely that you’ll find disparate pieces lacking a common unifying thread.  In such cases, cobbling together a publishable piece may seem a remote idea. However, periodic and systematic review and notation of your existing materials may reveal something of publishing value.  You’ll never know unless you take the time and energy to explore the possibility.  Projects like this demonstrate the technical side of the art and science of effective writing and should be one element in your authoring strategies

Systematic Review of Your Files
Having a comprehensible writer’s filing system can prove to be invaluable.  As a wordsmith, there are many good reasons to revisit your electronic and hardcopy folders and files on a regular basis.  The first benefit is controlling clutter.  When you no longer recognize what a folder or file contains, it’s time to consider deleting it, or combining its contents with another.  Of course, it is not advisable to delete material, until you’ve looked at it closely to see if there are any hidden gems.  For if you discover something that generates an unexpected revenue stream, the entire process is justified, even if it means using creativity in your file naming After all facilitating communication should include you!

Another reason for looking over your work is to review your journey as a professional writer.  Like an artist moving through various media and periods in the body of their work, you may find definitive patterns in your creations.  And, the process may impress you with the distance you have traveled and the progress that you’ve made.  You may also find there are topics, choices in voice, vocabulary, and sensory detail that you would like to employ in the work you are currently generating…

Facilitating File Review
In order to examine your work effectively, you need a filing system that facilitates easy access. Regardless of whether you’re dealing with hardcopy or electronic form, you’ll want to organize folders and files in a way that will make sense to you in the remote future. That means ensuring that each one is both recognizable and trackable.

Formatting Tips For Hardcopy Folders
Being a visually oriented person, I use color coding, abbreviated naming, and alphabetical sorting for hardcopy materials—of course, that’s after designating separate file drawers by category.  For all reference materials I use the color yellow.  These folders include:

~  Historical Reference
~  Geographical Reference
~ Organizational Reference
~  Miscellaneous Reference

For easy separation, I use Burgundy colored filing materials to designate Imaginings’ operational information and records.  This section includes topics such as:  accounting; computer hardware and software reference information; current and past marketing materials; handouts for clients; public speaking information and tools; and, current and completed writing projects.

Current clients are differentiated by teal colored folders and files.  For ongoing organizational volunteer projects, I use blue filing materials.  The great thing about a hardcopy folder is that its name can be changed whenever necessary by simply changing removable labels.  And once I’ve completed a project, (or am no longer working for a client), I transform most files into categorical records stored in the Burgundy color I use for my own files

For example, when I was no longer writing historical pieces for Realtor X, I removed materials I deemed irrelevant to any future work with them, and placed samples of the work I’d performed for them into a general topic folder [in this example, Real Estate].  This allows quick examination of all materials I’ve written about land and real estate. And, by retaining electronic files regarding individual companies, I can revisit the particulars of my association with them when necessary.

Electronic Folders & Files
I find that creating and naming Folders is easy…since I base the process on titles composed of descriptive words and folder placement on alphabetical sequencing.  To prevent having excessive numbers of folders for related topics, I use subset folders.  For example, within a Chinese reference folder, I have subsets for Chinese art, funeral customs, history, jewelry, language and dialects, names, philosophy, and Shànghăi, And within each of these categories, there are further folders for specific topics such as dynastic history, types of jade, elements of Shànghăi deco artwork, and male and female names.

When I began the Natalie Seachrist series, I had one unnamed book and a nameless protagonist.  After a while, the original file named “Book” became “Prospect For Murder.”  By then, the protagonist was Natalie Seachrist, so some files in the PFM Folder bear her name in their titling.  Many other files begin with the abbreviation “PFM,” followed by descriptive words, and finally, a date—if the material is NOT reference information. And, as with hardcopy files, reference data for the three books I’ve completed have been migrated to a generic Folder labeled “NS Research.”

Aside from logical alphabetical abbreviations, I urge you to date electronic files that are not reference information.  This is because one of the most difficult aspects of being a writer is the number of re-writes required. I fought dating my files for many years, but after repeated difficulty in locating the files I sought, I have followed the example of more scientifically-oriented authors.  The dating format I use is two digits each for the current year, the month, and day For today’s Blog, I might title the file, I_Blog_Taming_Clutter_Pt_1_160421.

Other issues in naming electronic files are the use of capital letters and underscores between words or other elements In the past, techies insisted on never using capital letters and always using dashes or underscores—or simply cramming alpha-numeric elements together without spaces.  I haven’t noticed such definitive instructions recently.  So, I use cap letters for readability, with underscores between the elements of a file name, as in one I created for recording the audio version of Prospect for Murder, PFM_Chapt_1_Vision.

Determining Files to Delete or Save
I offer one cautionary note to all authors when it comes to the potential deletion of files:  Author know thyself! This is crucial for all of us to internalize in many areas of our work.  It is particularly important for writers noted for being too quick to delete something they may later need…as well as those tending to hoard every word they write, as if each were presented in a vision from a higher authority.

In general, I de-clutter files by removing as many as I can in both hardcopy and electronic formats.  However, I have mechanisms for saving favorite material: I maintain two hardcopy sample portfolios.  One is a master with published examples from my best work.  The second one is smaller, with basic promotional materials focused on me and the general scope of Imaginings WordPower and Design Consultation.  In the smaller binder, I’ve allowed space for inserting material from the master portfolio that might be appropriate to meeting with a specific person or organization.

For each major writing project, I create a file named “Unused Verbiage.”  It is the destination for words, phrases and passages that I decide are inappropriate to my current endeavors, but which might prove useful later or in another piece of writing.  These favored words can also facilitate your re-editing of a piece, such as when your editor or publisher requests insertion of some element you had deemed irrelevant. 

Through such files, I track snippets of my writing, without needing to save a large or duplicative file.  In addition, I rename files with differing presentations of material, such as PFM elements that were too detailed for inclusion, but contain potentially useful information, i.e. RMS_EmpressofBrit_Orig_Description or Pearl_Wong_Orig_Shanghai_Story. Both of these files reside beside the completed manuscript of Prospect for Murder.  I don’t know how they might help me achieve goals and objectives in the unpredictable future. Perhaps I might revisit those passages as I complete Pearl Wong’s story within the series’ fourth book, Yen for Murder. 

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com.

The Value of an Index

Making Non-Fiction Text User Friendly

Empowering Your Words
In both fiction and non-fiction projects, there are many aspects of the art and science of writing that can go unnoticed in the creative phase of composition.  I heartily concur with the idea that as writers we need to focus initially on capturing our inspirational thoughts prior to addressing details of the editorial process.  Nevertheless, it is good to have the overall design of a literary project on the edge of our consciousness whenever putting pen to paper.  And, when we do don our editorial caps, writers need to be cognizant that that work empowers the words already set down.  Regardless of the target market, readers have expectations, and the skills of a wordsmith determine whether those expectations will be met.

During the publication of the anthology Under Sonoran Skies, Prose and Poetry of the High Desert, I was pleased to receive positive critical attention for my comprehensive index.  As the artistic director for the project, part of my authoring strategies was to ensure that future as well as current readers would find the work user-friendly, as well as an enjoyable read.  Despite my vision, some of my five co-authors have been less than enthusiastic about the value of indexing.  In fact, one of them was involved in another anthology for which an index was deemed irrelevant since including one would have reduced the number of pieces from one of the book’s prolific authors. 
Significance of The Lack of an Index
When I examined that book’s table of contents, I realized the work had frequent references to historical events and high-profile people.  Unfortunately, the lack of an index precluded a reader’s ability to analyze the work fully.  This was especially true if a reader wanted to compare text provided by multiple authors on a particular subject.  And, with the passage of time, even someone who has read the book and is familiar with its topics would find it difficult to re-access specific references—at least in hardcopy.  And it is true that reference searches in material in electronic format can be facilitated by utilizing a find or search command.  But to accomplish a comparison of various authors’ views, the reader would have to create a separate listing of those citations that pertained to their interests.

Since one can never know how a work will be used at a future time, I believe there is one simple argument for indices in non-fiction:  If it is logical that some reader may wish to locate a specific reference, there is a need for an index Even when a book’s contents are directed to a specific audience, future developments within the field under discussion—let alone the unfolding of history—may yield an unexpected group of readers for whom an index will be invaluable.

Structuring an index usually begins by listing proper nouns contained in the work—meaning all people, geographic locations, and events of sufficient worth to have been named.  Most word processing programs can help you gather and list such terms, even if they lack an actual indexing feature.  Another tactic for refining an index is analyzing terms included by other authors addressing a parallel subject.

As you delve into your indexing project, you may find topics requiring in-depth analysis.  In looking at the nouns you have initially listed, consider related names and topics that can be grouped under a general category.  For example, a discussion of lions, dogs and parrots suggests that a general topic of animals would be appropriate.  Of course, some words may not have such an obvious association.  One area of complexity is persons of varied professional accreditation.  If you lacked sufficient numbers of therapists, physicians and dentists to provide these individual categories, you might use a comprehensive term such as healthcare professionals.  Consider the terms highways, access ways, and trains.  While they do not all relate to forms of roadways, they might be listed under a general heading of transportation

If you tire during the indexing process, consider returning to your analysis of the work of colleagues.  For although you may have accessed the works of many authors during preliminary research, you may not have closely examined their indices.  This semi-final exercise may not only reveal an approach to indexing you have not considered, but it may also reveal gaps in topics or subtopics within the body of your own work.  Even if you decline to broaden the scope of your piece, you may wish to consider some additions to your afterword or bibliography.

Before I leave the topic of indexing, I should offer one cautionary note for avoiding a mammoth appendage to your actual composition:  When in doubt about including a general category, consider whether you have a minimum of three words to list within it…

The art of communicating with readers requires diligence in refining your skills.  It is as demanding an element in non-fiction as in a fine work of fiction.  So, beyond indexing, what other tools of wordsmithing could enhance your reader’s experience?

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn about Prospect for Murder [the first book in the Natalie Seachrist Hawaiian mystery series] and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website: Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

Interviews & Oral Histories: No. 2, Research

Researching For Interviews 

The Art and Science of Writing
Today’s post is a recipe to help you prepare for any general or oral history interview you may conduct
.
  While the ingredients may prove dry for some of my readers, my intent is to simplify the process for those of you seeking to broaden your skills as a researcher, interviewer and writer.  For, like a piece of fine art, the strong interview will provide a complex layering of elements that leads to a deeper understanding of the interviewee’s life, their place within world events, and the experiences that have made them who they are. 

Relying on their charm and a heavy dose of luck, some interviewers claim that establishing a good rapport with one’s subject is all that is required for a strong interview.  But although creating a personal connection with your subject is definitely required, I urge you to consider that doing a bit of research will strengthen your credibility with the interviewee and boost your skills as a professional interviewer worthy of respect.

Although the following example falls under the category of art, it demonstrates how the lack of professional training can interfere with one’s work.  Many years ago, I met a gifted painter who employed the tiniest makeup brushes to create delicate lace, fine hairs on African wildlife, and complex patterns on silken fabrics.  Noticing flaws in the placement of shadows, proportion of objects, and the musculature of human bodies, I gently suggested she take classes in the foundations of art

When she responded that an art teacher had previously crushed her spirit, I suggested she study privately with an artist she could carefully select for compatibility.  Over the years she has achieved a measure of success, but the flaws I first noticed continue throughout the body of her work.  I can only imagine what the knowledge of an authoritative artist could have added to the depth of her art.

Where should you begin your research as an interviewer?  Like the ideal scientist, you will want to thoroughly research your interview subject, confirming basic facts you may have assumed were correct.  To establish a reliable foundation for the facts to be revealed in the interview (as well as to offer a concise expression of the interviewee’s viewpoint), you will need to conduct research that goes beyond the details of their résumé.  This work should be completed before formulating the questions you will ask in the interview. 

As you move through the process of gathering information, consider the following questions.  What is the purpose of the interview project?  What are the demographics of your target audience who will be accessing your work?  Also, what direction is suggested by the format and themes of the media outlet with which you are working

Regardless of the proposed thrust of an interview, information that the public may seek about the subject should be addressed.  In addition, if you wish to separate your interview from others the subject may have granted, I believe it is good to have at least one surprising fact revealed. 

Now comes what some will consider the boring work.  There’s no way around it, unless you want to rely on your great charm.  To organize the facts you have discovered effectively, I suggest you consider using several tools.

  1. Create a double-spaced copy of the interviewee’s résumé or curriculum vitae [CV].  Highlight each piece of information you need to verify.  Place a check mark beside each one you confirm.
  1. Working from either a list provided by the subject (or revealed in your research), examine the interviewee’s articles, books, previous interviews, and other expressions of their thoughts that may exist.
  1. As you proceed with your research, write out potential topics for your forthcoming dialogue.
  1. Create a timeline of the subject’s life.  Although you may be focused on their career and public persona, list highlights in both their professional and personal living as a guideline to help you respond to unexpected turns your dialogue may take.  Depending on what has made the person newsworthy, you may wish to look at a graph of historical events that intersect with their life.  

How will such timelines be useful?  If, for example, the interviewee was involved in the labor movement of the post-World War II era, the strikes of labor unions on the West Coast and in Hawai`i greatly impacted the general public as well as union members.  Consider also the arts.  If your subject is a composer of music or lyrics, you may find that their noteworthy pieces were created at times of considerable importance in history.  Sometimes their work will actually be named for such an occurrence or an entire era.  This was true of a symphony named for, and embodying the discordant notes of, the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Depending on the flow of your interview, reference to an intersection of general history and your subject’s life may yield surprising insights about their career or personal living.  This can help you communicate with your subject, as well as with your readers or listeners.

  1. Prepare an interviewee survey.  Sequence your questions from the information they have provided to you.  You can simplify the process for your subject by filling in information you have been able to confirm through your research.  This could include:  Dates and descriptions of their degrees, certifications, accreditations, and other qualifications; institutions of affiliation; professional positions they have held; published works, community volunteerism and other involvement; names, ages, careers of spouse, partners, or children.  Remember that if you put in data you have not confirmed, you may be inviting errors—should their memory be flawed, or they actually wish to perpetuate dissemination of erroneous information.

To further your acquaintanceship—and to trigger your subject’s memories—you may want to offer blank space for them to fill in items such as:  Their nicknames; mentors and public figures who have impacted their life; programs and schools of thought that have shaped their perspective; adjunct and social organizations with which they may be associated; and, hobbies and interests.  Whether or not you wish to pursue topics such as political, philosophical or religious associations may depend on both what you have learned about your interviewee and the orientation of the media outlet with which you are working.

Despite the details I am suggesting you consider, keep the resulting survey as short and simple as possible.  I also recommend using a five-point Likert Scale for any questions you wish answered with a measurement of the subject’s agreement.  Hopefully, your subject will be able to provide you with a completed survey prior to the interview.  This will allow you to fold their responses into questions you are preparing for conducting the interview. 

If you do not receive a response to your survey, have a pleasant conversation with your interviewee about your preparation, so that they will want to participate fully in the process.  If necessary, try to reschedule the survey by a day or two to ensure you are fully prepared.  If you must conduct the interview without seeing your subject’s survey responses, you may want to take a few moments to try to write notes in the margins of your interview questions about issues you now feel you need to explore.

By the time you are nearing completion of your research, you should know whether or not the facts you have uncovered demonstrate your subject’s ability and desire to answer your questions fully and honestly.  In addition, you will have determined whether the facts revealed are in accord with the original goals of your project.  It is also important to determine whether the direction of the interview indeed fits within the thrust of the media outlet with which you may be working

It is possible that you will find there are fundamental conflicts within the facts revealed in your research, your initial perspective on the interviewee, and the boundaries of the planned interview.  If you are able to control publication of the information resulting from your interview, you are fortunate.  But if you are restricted by the media outlet’s direction, I sincerely hope you will discuss your concerns with their management team prior to conducting an interview that does not honor you or your interviewee.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors, 
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

 

Media Relations For Authors

Part 1, Know Your Media

With today’s changing media, it’s nearly impossible to write a comprehensive and durable directive on the Dos and Don’ts of Media Relations for writers, or anyone. But with the intense competition for acquiring visibility in the public arena, it’s vital to make becoming a pro at your interaction with the media a vital element of your authoring strategies.

If you’re an effective wordsmith, you know the importance of both the written and spoken word.  Of course, in today’s electronically-driven world, a word is not necessarily a word.  With shortened forms of communication being perceived as ideal, varieties of abbreviations abound.  Unfortunately, these shortcuts can lead to confusion.  Not even acronyms can be relied on to carry identical meanings when used within the same language.  Consider AMA. While it is used for both the American Medical Association and the Arizona Medical Association, it also stands for Ask Me Anything.  Then there’s also COD, which in commerce means Cash on Delivery; in another context, it means Call of Duty.  So, when dealing with acronyms, you have to be clear about which meaning you are attributing to the abbreviation.

Regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, or commercial text like ads and commercials, the key to effective communication can be found in determining the demographics of your target market.  Luckily, when we consider the demographics of media outlets, most are designed to appeal to a specific segment of the population.  This can save considerable time, energy, and money when you wish to gain the attention of a media outlet’s readers, viewers, and/or listeners.

In the twentieth century, media generally referred to newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and signage.  Today there are expanded versions of these media, as well as the Internet which has exploded across the globe with constantly evolving permutations.  Just examining today’s political campaigns demonstrates that effectively utilizing static, electronic and mobile vehicles of communication provides unlimited choices for embedding a branded messageas long as someone is willing to pay for message preparation, if not actual placement of the resulting advertisement or infomercial. 

But what alternatives are available to those who cannot afford to pay for research, graphic design, or advertising slots?  Fortunately, even an individual with limited resources can find opportunities for communicating with the public that are cost-effective, if not actually free of charge.  Today’s hottest communication outlets are in the realm of social media Like other media platforms, you must be savvy about your use of them…but we’ll leave that topic for another post.…

One of the simplest means of getting free media coverage lies in earning their attention After analyzing a media outlet’s format and demographics, you can shape text that will help meet their need to generate timely and noteworthy coverage of relevant persons and events.  Keep in mind that short and concise presentations of the facts and even articles receive preferential treatment.  If you capture their interest, a journalist can always request quotes and additional facts, but they will not want to edit material you send regarding a topic they may feel has little media value. 

When you’re not facing a promotional deadline, you can explore aspects of developing long-term relationships with your media contacts.  In short, you need to develop friendships that will prove beneficial to your marketing programs.  While this may seem simplistic, building bonds with the people who regularly communicate with the public continues to be a cost effective ways for writers and artists [as well as non-profit organizations] to stimulate awareness of their work.

If you meet someone in passing, you’ll want to make the most of the opportunity to get acquainted.  But when you have the time, you should perform at least cursory research of the person you desire to meetWhether they’re a columnist, commentator, or a department head within a media outlet, a brief Internet search should reveal details about where they attended school, organizations to which they belong, and personal interests you may share.  To maximize the results of your effort, you may wish to utilize more than one search engine.   Next, you can then strengthen your avenues of connectivity by researching their professional output:  Their articles, columns, or books; programs; videos, etc.

What is the current focus of their work?  What are their clients expecting?  Can you find a gap, current or recurring, in what they offer the public?  In newspapers, this is called the news hole If you’re lucky there will be a gap just waiting to be filled with your data.  If that is the case, your media contact will be truly grateful for your input and will welcome hearing from you in the future.

Once you have completed your background research, you can strategize meeting or expanding your relationships within the media outlets you are targeting.  If you’ll be attending the same function, consider sending notes or emails expressing your desire to see them.  Or, if you have just attended an event at which they spoke, you can send congratulatory messages commenting on your appreciation of their work.

The bottom line is that communicating directly with members of the media yields invaluable results:  Personal connectivity with people who may be able to quickly act upon information you share with them; opportunities for networking with outstanding members of your virtual or real community; potential for entering into partnerships that can help you achieve your goals and objectives.  And, by making the effort to demonstrate genuine care about their concerns regarding appropriate topics and meeting deadlines, you will not only attain increased public visibility, but you will end up participating in new and sometimes exciting events. 

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors, 
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

For examples of concise print and broadcast media releases, visit:  http://www.imaginingswordpower.com/media/media_release_samples.html
To learn about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  For ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

Interviews & Oral Histories, #1, Overview

The Art & Science of Writing
The Anxieties of Conducting Interviews

While many writers enter a new project by addressing its individual parts consecutively, I tend to begin by considering how it parallels other work I have undertaken.  That is why my discussion of business plans and grant proposals is offered in a single page on my website.  Likewise, I view the preparation for conducting both journalistic and oral history interviews as generally the same.  Before examining specific aspects of preparing for an interview, I should clarify that there are limits to this simplistic summation, for the research required for anything dealing with an historical topic is usually greater than that for a biographical feature in a newspaper or magazine.

However, in both instances, you need to begin by learning as much as you can about your subject.  For while time or resources may preclude your conducting in-depth research, there are two essential reasons for doing as much as you can.  The most obvious one is to verify facts that have purported to make the man or woman sufficiently noteworthy for you to undertake your project.  This fact checking ensures that even if the subject’s memory of specific elements in their personal or professional history is flawed, your reporting will be accurate. 

The second reason to perform research is to find commonalities that will help you establish a rapport with your interviewee.  This can be especially important if your interview is being done by telephone rather than in person.  Even with today’s connectivity via computer camera, the nuances of a personal meeting can be lost in electronic communication:  The brightness of your smile upon entering the presence of your interviewee; the warmth of a firm but nonthreatening handshake; the liveliness of your natural voice; the fragrance of memorabilia assembled for your meeting; the shared experience of a flavorful cup of tea or coffee.

Honing your skills in the art of communication is vital in conducting any kind of interview.  In the end, the results of failing to prepare properly for any interview are the same:  Poor quality dialogue between you and your interviewee AND poor quality of your authorship.

Good writing reflects a combination of science and art.  Empowering your words means investing the same amount of energy in your mental preparation as in performing your research, organizing the results, and outlining the questions you will ask during the interview.  What do I mean by encouraging your mental preparation?  There is little you can do to be certain of the attitude of your subject.  But, despite anything that may occur prior to the interview, you can adjust your own thinking to be as positive as possible.  In short, you need to be artful in your interaction with your interviewee in order to have a winning result for both of you. 

That last note is very important, so allow me to repeat it:  In order for your project to be a true success, both you and your interviewee must feel a sense of accomplishment when the conversation ends.  The interviewer is supposed to be in the driver’s seat.  To reach your goal of creating an interaction that will result in mutual satisfaction, you have to anticipate myriad issues that might arise in the interview.

I will admit that once you have completed your transcription, there may be points on which you and the subject will disagree…usually because the interviewee has doubts about the material they have disclosed, or they have misgivings about the manner in which they answered your questions.  In these situations, there is little that you can do about any disappointments your subject may feel—although you can offer to interview them again, or to make note of their after-thoughts in a way that honors both your work and their concerns.  However, as long as you have a signed informed consent and legal release form granting you use of the interview and its contents, you should be safe from future legal issues.

If you are a professional writer, you may have encountered circumstances in which you have turned to an attorney for counsel.  For as laws vary from state to state, and accepted interview practices may change over time, you must be careful to research the legal issues involved in the use of information obtained in interviews you conduct.  Also, you may wish to consider taking courses in journalism and oral history…at least have access to a respected journalist or historian who can advise you about interview standards. 

Should you find the thought of embarking on a round of higher education daunting, please know that you should be able to find a school that will allow you to audit a course.  This means that unlike a student taking the course for college credit, you should not have to take exams or write course papers.  However, as a sign of respect, even if the professor’s permission is not required, I recommend that you speak to them in advance of registering to audit their course[s].

How one handles the discomfort of an interviewee can be a difficult issue for anyone Following an interview with an elderly woman in Hawai`i, I was careful to recreate the full essence of our conversation.  I did this by indicating the subject’s cadence and pronunciation in the transcription.  At the time we were contemplating writing a partial family history, for which little of our dialogue would have appeared in the prose I would have composed for the book.  Unfortunately, that fact did not mitigate her displeasure at what she perceived as flaws in her use of the English language.

In another instance, during research for a master’s degree in modern American history, I conducted an oral history interview with a man who participated in the Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II.  As I had been trained in oral history courses, I had performed considerable research in advance.  The interviewee and I were the ideal combination of being opposite in gender and age, and we did strike a good rapport at the onset of our meeting.  In addition to this interview, I conducted subsequent interviews with former colleagues of the man, which also unfolded in equally harmonious ways.  Unfortunately, when I interviewed his wife after his death, I learned that the work of my subject had been undermined by the rise of McCarthyism and the prolonged witch hunt for anyone suspected of being a communist—or even, as in this case, being a supporter of freedom of speech in open dialogues between persons of varied political leanings.

I offer these examples of challenges faced by the interviewer to encourage you to conduct in-depth research prior to your interview AND to suggest that despite whatever due diligence you have performed, something unforeseen can arise.  I’m glad to say that in the aftermath of both of these challenges, I was able to retain positive relationships with my interviewees, although the projects did not come to fruition as I had planned.  In the long run, I recognized there is little I could have handled differently in the interview process itself, and I have certainly benefited from the experiences I had as a young writer.

This brings me to one of the most important points I wish to make on this topic:  All of your work as a researcher and writer adds to your credibility as an author.  And, without a few challenges along your path, you will lack the breadth of life experience that brings depth to the verbiage you shape into material that both a targeted and general readership will find of interest.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com.  To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com. 

Creating Fictional Characters

Researching Fictional Characters
or Client Descriptions?

If you’re a writer—fledgling amateur or professional—you should not be surprised to spend a lot of time in research.  While much of this work can be performed on a computer, tablet or smart phone, some reference materials must be accessed in person.  If you’re lucky, the information you’re seeking can be found at a nearby library or university.

Otherwise, you may need to travel to complete your research in another city, region, or country to visit libraries, museums or archival collections.  Unfortunately, the cost of travel and time spent away from home may be higher than you wish to invest in a project.  Another option is hiring a research assistant.  While this scenario may save time and out-of-pocket expenses, be prepared for unforeseen complexities in working with someone you may never have met.  Even when you speak the same language, the manner in which each of you approaches research may be wholly different.

Whether you are an author seeking fictional characters, or a business executive writing descriptions of your target clientele, you may need to present snapshots of people that will grab your reader’s attention.  Writing succinct portrayals of people can be challenging to the most creative writer.  Fortunately, the answer to this research dilemma may be close at hand.

In addition to your visionary skills, consider people you already know and can easily depict.  While you may not want to author a description of someone likely to read your work, you can combine the attributes of several individuals so that no single person can take offense.   

In the weekly writers’ salon I founded a few years ago, one member has shared her use of newspaper obituaries as a source for biographic images.  Available online or in hardcopy, this resource is readily available at little or no cost.  Often accompanied by photos of the deceased in their prime, these simple paragraphs offer highlights of individuals from every variety of background, education, profession and economic level.

Due to the cost, writers of obituaries usually limit the number of words they use, often omitting physical descriptions of the departed if photos are included.  Despite the brevity, you will find a rich palette of words from which you can shape a dynamic biographic image.  To enhance the available descriptive text for your own project, you might want to draw on information from more than one entry.

Keep in mind that rules of plagiarism apply to any writer’s work, including obituaries.  This fact should not detract from your ability to draw inspiration from an obituary to develop biographical sketches for your work.  The effort you invest in this activity should minimize any assistance you may require from a professional editor.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant
For more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit: https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

To learn more about Prospect For Murder and my other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at:  https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com