Before You Write Interviewing Check List I. Before the interview A. Know the subject 1. Seek specific information 2. Research the subject 3. List the questions B. Know the person 1. Know salient biographical information 2. Know person‟s expertise regarding subject matter C. Set up the interview 1. Set the time a. Interviewee‟s convenience – but suggest time b. Length of time needed c. Possible return visits 2. Set the place a. Interviewee‟s turf – or b. Neutral turf D. Discuss arrangements 1. Will you bring a tape recorder? 2. Will you bring a photographer? 3. Will you let interviewee check accuracy of quotes? II. During the interview A. When you arrive 1. Control the seating arrangement 2. Place tape recorder at optimum spot 3. Warm up person briefly with small talk 4. Set the ground rules a. Put everything on the record b. Make everything attributable B. The interview itself 1. use good interview techniques a. Ask open-ended questions b. Allow the person to think and to speak; pause c. Don‟t be threatening in voice or manner d. Control the flow but be flexible 2. Take good notes a. Be unobtrusive b. Be thorough 3. Use the tape recorder a. Assume it‟s not working b. Note digital counter at important parts c. Before you leave C. Before you leave 1. Ask if there‟s anything interviewee wants to say 2. Check facts – spellings, dates, statistics, quotes 3. Set time for re-check of facts, quotes 4. Discuss when and where interview might appear 5. Ask if interviewee wants extra copies III. After the interview A. Organize your notes – immediately B. Craft a proper lead C. Write a coherent story D. Check accuracy with the interviewee GENERALLY SPEAKING, THE MORE SPECIFICS YOU PROVIDE, THE MORE VIVID YOUR ARTICLE WILL BE “God is in the details,” Mies van der rohe once proclaimed. He was talking to architects, but his admonition is equally good advice for article writers. All nonfiction writing, if you sit down and think about it, can be seen as a movement from the specific to the general and back again. It is the specifics-the details, in other words- that grab the reader‟s attention and that make your general points come alive in the imagination. Another adage (this one actually originally aimed at writers) goes: “Don‟t tell me, show me.” Details do the work of showing. They make the abstract real. Like the proverbial picture that‟s worth a thousand words, details can carry more weight than could the words used to describe them. Take another look at the first sentence of this column. What if instead I had opened with: “Some architect once said that details are very important…”? Without the exact quote and the specific source, it falls flat. God is, indeed, in the details. But how do you get those details into your writing? Open your eyes and ears- but that‟s just for starters. Of course you know the importance of using your senses: what are the sights, smells, sounds, feels and even the tastes of your subject? Your senses are just out for exercise, however, unless the highly specific details of your observations ultimately make it into your notebook and into your writing. Just as “an architect” isn‟t detailed enough, recording that your subject drives up in “a blue car” doesn‟t do justice to the demand for details. Was it, in fact, an aquamarine Camaro with the stereo booming out Bany Manilow? Record it all, and re-create the scene for your readers in vivid detail. Don‟t say “trees” where you can specify oak or hemlock or maple or hickory. If a dog came snarling to the screen door when you drove up for an interview, note whether it was a dachshund or a Doberman. If the TV is blaring, is it tuned in to Hard Copy or Masterpiece Theatre? Getting details – the detailed details, that is – means taking efficient and accurate notes. Even if you rely on a tape recorder for interviews, you should also bring along a notebook to scribble down those details that the tape can‟t catch: what‟s your subject wearing? What does his office or home or factory look like, smell like? Does she fiddle with her rings as she talks? What‟s the view out the window? Not all of these details will find their way into your story – indeed, to be effective with details you must also be selective – but if you don‟t capture them at the time they appear, they won‟t be at your fingertips when your article needs a dose of detailed reality. When I take notes at an interview, I‟ll scribble observations in my notebook even as my subject is talking. Almost no one is so interesting or so quotable that you don‟t get a few spare moments of nodding your head, pretending to be writing down quote4s but actually recording what‟s cross-stitched on the sampler behind your subject‟s desk. I use quick vertical slashes beside these observations to remind me later that they‟re not quotations. Details can pop out of secondary research too. When taking notes from books or magazines, don‟t record just the broad strokes. Look for numbers and names, jargon and lingo, bits of color and human interest. Write down complete addresses and copy whole lists. Take down inventories as though you were a clerk or a persnickety storekeeper. These are the flecks of reality that give your writing authority and verisimilitude. They signal the reader that you know what you‟re talking about, that you can be trusted to take equal care with the larger facts. DON’T JUST HAVE A LITE… Lacing your reporting and your writing with certain kinds of details is a good way to get into the habit of being as specific as you possibly can. Once you start seeing these details, others will also find their way into your articles. Take brand names, for instance. Now, I know that brand names are a bugaboo in some style books and for some writing teachers (and, of course, misusing brand names might bring you a stern letter from the brand-holder‟s trademark attorney)- but that precisely why I want to start with them. Remember those ads where the guy orders “a lite” and gets a flame thrower instead of a beer? Be generic these days and you‟ll get burned. If you‟re still writing a soft drink in stead of a Coke or athletic shoes instead of Nikes, cut it out and catch up to our brand conscious culture. Stop worrying about giving somebody “free advertising” and start thinking about the reader: Using the brand name conveys more information, more vividly. Writers and editors at The New Yorker – yes, the staid New Yorker, where the wall between editorial and advertising is famously unbreechable- have known this for years. As William L Howarth note4d in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, a collection of works by one of The New Yorker’s finest reporters: “Like the magazine, [McPhee] uses trademark names – L.L. Bean, Adidas, The Glenlivet – but not to sell shoes or whiskey. Names specify a scene, sharpen the focus of his observations.” Or here‟s Jane Kramer, another New Yorker veteran, in a profile of a Texas cowboy: “Henry himself carried a .30-.30 Winchester slung across the gun rack on his Ford pickup . . .” and, later, “. . . the local cowboys‟ children-borrowed [the chuck wagon] for serving hot dogs and Dr. Pepper… Besides the bottles in his pickup and his saddlebag, he kept a fifth of Jim Beam hidden behind some old cereal boxes…” Beyond brand names, work to get the names of things right – really right. Here‟s how another New Yorker writer, Lillian Ross, described a scene from a Miss America pageant parade years ago: “Miss New York State, preceded by Hap Brander‟s string band and a float proclaiming the merits of Fralinger‟s Salt Water Taffy, got a big hand from the audience.” See how flat and generic that scene might have read if Ross hadn‟t taken the time to get the names right: “Miss New York State, preceded by a band and a float for a candy company, got a big hand from the audience.” Or consider colors, which have a whole nomenclature of their own. IN a story on mobile-home living for TWA Ambassador, I made sure I got the names of the colors right: “You have your choice of carpet – pearl, sap green or miner‟s gold – and countertop – butcher block, harvest classic or eggshell white.” But the color champ has to be Tom Wolfe‟s exuberant depiction of cars driving to the stock car races in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which includes “aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assasin pink, rake-a-cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange and Baby Fawn.” Whew! Another easy way to add detail to your writing is to count things. Don‟t write several if you can write six. In the book Friday Night Lights, an account of Texas football mania, H.G. Bissinger notes that the football yearbook "“an 224 pages, had 513 individual advertisements, and raised $20,000.” Writing “many advertisements” or “more than 200 apges” wouldn‟t have spoken as powerfully about the town‟s passion for the pigskin. In a story on the elite 21 restaurant for New York magazine, Richard West ticked off the landmark‟s glories as magnate Marvin Davis “paused for an instant in front of the black wrought-iron grillwork, the two American flags, the white lanterns with the red „21s,‟ beneath the eternal gaze of the 25 cast-iron jockey statues.” Not “a bunch” of jockey statues, please note, but 25. Using a similar technique with a very different subject, Joan Didion set the scene for a lurid crime story in California‟s San Bernardino Valley: “. . .past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is 19 stucco teepees: „SWLEEP IN A WIGWAM – GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM.‟” Didion took the time to count: 19 stucco teepees. She also took care to write down exactly what the motel sign said. Signs, plaques posters and bumper stickers- all of which, in context, often say more than the sum of their words- can add powerful detail to your articles. In Travels in Georgia, John McPhee paints a picture of the rural Cliffhanger Café using its sign, verbatim: “Enjoy Coca-Cola. See it here, free. Tallulah Gorge. 1,200 feet deep.” Bissinger, in Friday Night Lights, describes chartered Greyhound (note the brand name) buses with these words shoe-polished (not painted, but shoe-polished) on the side: “WE LUV YOU BLUE.” And he notes a quote from Sam Huff on the team bulletin board: “people pay money to see great hits” – cheek-by-jowl with this somewhat loftier sentiment from Chariots of Fire: “Let each of you discover where your chance for greatness lies. Seize that chance and let no power on earth deter you.” DO GET IT RIGHT As Bissinger‟s ironic juxtaposition demonstrates, you must orchestrate your presentation of details for maximum effect. Your job is to filter the chaotic confusion of what you observe and arrange it in a way that is both true to life and yet more true than life. By Davide A. Fryxell If your articles have become, well, a little dull, employ some figurative language. Well-placed similes, metaphors and literary allusions can enliven any topic. By David Petersen A big part of a writer‟s job is reading. For information, sure, but also for technique and style. I hold a degree in creative writing, but I learned my craft (such as it is) not nearly so much from formal education as from paying attention to how other writiers put things together: what works, what doesn‟t work and why. I learned to read as a writer. Not long ago, while doing some off-duty browsing through wildlife magazines at my local library, I spotted an article about porcupines. (Being a nature nut, I consume animal stories like some folks eat popcorn.) I gave the porky story a rad and, in so doing, relearned a valuable lesson about writing. The author – I‟ll call him Joe – opened with a brief personal anecdote, then outlined the natural history of Erethizon dorsatum in a clean, interesting, if somewhat formula fashion. On finishing, I felt I‟d learned something. But Joe‟s wasn‟t the sort of writing that would prompt me to remember his name or haunt the racks looking for more of his stuff. Coincidentally, I‟d recently reread Jaguars Ripped My Flesh (Bantum), an invigorating collection of magazine pieces by adventure-travel writer Tim Cahill. One of my favorite stories in that anthology is “Rime of the Ancient Porcupine,” which originally appeared some years ago in Cahill‟s Out There column in Outside magazine. As opposed to Joe‟s treatment, Cahill‟s porky story is the sort of writing that prompts me to remember the author‟s name and haunt the racks looking for more of his stuff. The point is this: Here we have two well-written articles, Joe‟s and Tim‟s, on the same title topic, but one is eminently memorable and the other not. Why? The answer, put broadly, isstyle. And specifically in this case, figurative language. While Joe‟s article emphasizes information over entertainment and clarity over style, Cahill‟s takes a different tack. In the latter essay, the nature of the beast is not the focus-though the author provides several interesting facts about porcupines. Rather, Cahill‟s porky serves as a mirror in which the author reflects eloquently on human nature. Briefly, “Rime” is the story of a time-honored north-country folk belief that porcupines embody good luck. To wit: should you someday find yourself stumbling through a pine forest in winter, lost and starving, a porcupine could save your butt. They‟re plentiful and easy to catch, can be killed with a stick and, once you get past the prickly bits, the meat is highly nutritious. The corollary, it follows, is that he who kills a porcupine wantonly brings bad luck upon himself. With the above established ina few tight paragraphs, Cahill goes on to tell the true story of a Montana man who, “in the bad winter of 1939,” committed the “unholy deed” and, true to legend, paid a terrible price. LITERARY ALLUSION You have probably made the connection by now between the title and bent of Cahill‟s “Rime of the Ancient porcupine” and similar tale about a mariner and an albatross. That connection is no coincidence. Rather, it‟s technique – figurative language in general, literary allusion in particular. While Joe‟s piece achieves the nonfiction writer‟s bottom line goal of having something to say and saying it well, Cahill‟s goes beyond that, via literary allusion, to stimulate the reader‟s memory and imagination. The porcupine as literature. The difference between Joe‟s and Tim‟s essays starts emerging as early as their titles. Joe calls his article something on the order of “Porky.” Cahill‟s “Rime of the Ancient porcupine,” however, goes beyond merely identifying the subject of the piece and alludes boldly to S.T Coleridge‟s epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, thereby establishing an eerie, nostalgic tone for the story that follows. While most Outside magazine readers will recognize the reference, Cahill clarifies the allusion by reminding us of the poet‟s name and voice: The ice the, we might conjecture, was here, the ice was there. The ice was all around. It cracked and growled and roared and howled, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have it, life noises ina swound… Having thus set the stage, Cahill leaves Coleridge to his opium dreams and turns to his own story. He reconnects with the literary allusion in the closing paragraph: I think to think that this man, who set a porcupine afire, walked like one that hath been stunned and is of sense forlorn. A sadder and a wiser man, I imagine, he rose the morrow morn. In this clever fashion, the writer has pulled us back tot he opening image for a satisfying full-circle finale. Allusion-referring directly or indirectly to a well-known poem, book story, movie, song or what have you-is a mainstay of figurative (also called metaphorical or allegorical) writing. A well-chosen allusion, like the proverbial picture, is worth a thousand words. In fact, it can be better than a picture-it'‟ richer, more compelling and personal. In short, it'‟ memorable. Yet, for all its potential strengths, the considerable skill, effort and knowledge required to employ allusion effectively combine to make it the least used of the three primary techniques of figurative writing. MIGHTY METAPHORS AND SMILING SIMILES The most common of the lot is metaphor – evoking the image of one thing to clarify, amplify or brighten the image of another. The grand master of metaphor was William Shakespeare: “all the worlds‟ a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Just so. But A.B. Guthrie Jr. was himself no metaphorical slouch. In Guthrie‟s 1951 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Way West, aging mountain main Dick Summers reflects on the changing face of the Western frontier: A cornfield, even like the sorry patch by the fot, didn‟t belong with war whoops and scalping knives. It belonged with cabins and women and children playing safe in the sun. it belonged with the dull pleasures, with the fat belly and dim eye of safety. [Italics mine] With that well-placed metaphor, Guthrie uses only nine words to illustrate Summers‟s disdain for the “new” frontier. The third primary subspecies of figurative language, simile, differs from metaphor only on a minor technicality. While metaphor says one this is another –love is a rose- simile uses words such as like, as, and as if to compare one thing to another. Love is like a rose. In the figuratively eloquent words of the late Edward Abbey, “A simile is like an understanding smile of love-warm, deepening and full of grace.” While grace is apparent in all effective figurative writing – simile, metaphor, allusion – you needn‟t be literary or poetic or by any means fancy to pull it off. For example: One of the most effective and enjoyable discussions I‟ve read on the writer‟s craft compares an editor to a mechanic and a manuscript to an automobile engine. By employing familiar mechanical terms – honing, adjusting, grinding, tightening, tuning – to explain how a master mechanic goes about repairing an engine without completely disassembling and rebuilding it with new parts, the writer delivers a telling metaphorical message about how a good editor fixes what‟s wrong with a manuscript without altering its essential character. And the creator of this mechanical metaphor employs it in a style that‟s simultaneously clear, entertaining and memorable. Nothing esoteric, academic or fancy there – just effective use of figurative language. HANDLE WITH CARE No matter how seemingly mundane your topic, a bit of figurative language can add spice to the stew. But here, too, there be dragons. Beware the temptation to over season. Like a dash of crushed red pepper on pizza, a little figurative languages goes a long way. Beware the metaphorical color purple. Too many writers get bogged ina mire of overly dramatic figurative language: “At the sound of the shotgun blast, Joey‟s head exploded like an over ripe melon hurled from the heavens by an angry god.” (Anonymous, and just as well.) Beward the mixed metaphor: “Out of the frying pan and into the hot water.” Be aware that not all magazines are looking for literary prose, figurative or otherwise, And vice versa. I‟ll bet my shorts in public that Joe‟s “Porky,” had he sent it to Outside, would have come scurrying back pinned with a rejection slip. Outside wants fresh, graceful, highly entertaining sriting, not formula info pieces. Similarly – and I‟m sure Tim Cahill will agree with me here – the wild life magazine that published Joe‟s article would have rejected Cahill‟s “Rime” because, sublime though it is, it isn‟t nature writing, and nature writing is what a wildlife magazine is about. Know your markets and tailor your style accordingly. It‟s a freelancing truism that solid information presented smoothly wins more magazine sales than does literary dexterity, which is scorned by many no frills editors as fluff. But if you want to grow as a writer, once in a while try painting a picture worth a thousand words. Mastering this “allusive skill” could bring you one step closer to a Pulitzer…figuratively speaking of course.
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