Asking the Right Questions: How To Craft Killer Q&A’s

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Q&As are the bread and butter of so many working journalists and investigative article writers, especially in entertainment-related publishing. They can seem deceptively simple: ask and you shall receive, right? And oftentimes the general consensus is that they’re somehow easier or require less work than incorporating quotes in a feature-style piece. The tools that help set a Q&A apart from the rest can be elusive but, when employed properly, elevate the standard, time-tested format into a must-read, eye-opening piece.

1.Do your research

You’re telling yourself, “Well, of course!” But preparing for a Q&A interview means really devoting time to learning about the person so that you can engage them in a way that’s not the ol’ I-have-this-to-promote-and-you-have-a-deadline-to-meet transaction. Especially if you’re interviewing someone who is used to the press process, you can set yourself apart from the pack by finding unique bits from their personal history to ask about or mention a smaller, lesser known project that you’re familiar with.

2.Anticipate what everyone else is asking…

…And then don’t ask that. Assume that people read your Q&As specifically because you bring something unique to the table that doesn’t involve spinning a big wheel with questions like “Tell me about what it was like to work on [blank]” and “What are your influences?” on it. There are ways to talk to people about their of-the-moment projects without sounding canned or like an interview robot.

3.Avoid talking about yourself and/or hogging the interview

One of the hardest parts about a successful interview is the need for it to balance somewhere between informal, friendly chat and question-answering session. People can become guarded when being interviewed, naturally, and it’s important to find a way to get them to open up, but remember that there’s a difference between cracking a quick joke (hopefully based off something they said) and telling a five minute story about how you love their band so much because it reminded you of when you were in college and you worked at this great record store that you met your first boyfriend at and… Zzzzzz. One way to think about it is that when looking at the transcribed text of your interview, your blocks of interviewer text should rarely outweigh theirs.

4.Avoid speakerphone and/or interviewing in a loud or distracting location

This is nit-picky and sometimes really can’t be avoided but just the same way that you hate being put on speakerphone by someone when you’re trying to tell them something important, interviewees don’t love the sound of a total stranger’s hollow, faraway voice sounding even more detached. Remember, they’re being expected to share anecdotes and personal information with someone they’ve, oftentimes, never met so try to find ways to limit the distraction and inherent distance between you.

5.Be open to the interview going in myriad, unanticipated directions

The best Q&As to read are the ones that don’t travel in the direction you most expect them. When an interviewer is able to get someone to open up and tell a never-before-shared story from on-set or something even completely off-topic but delightful — like their secret passion for magic or brewing beer in their basement — readers are almost always able to feel that spontaneity in the conversation. You want someone to feel like they’re sitting around having a relaxed afternoon drink with you and this other, very interesting person while you talk. You don’t want them to feel like they’re watching you sweat while moving tediously down a list of thought-out questions, whether they’re reaping entertaining answers or not.

How To Make Your Pitches Perfect

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As a freelance writer, you have to be a strong salesperson. Maybe the strongest salesperson of all—because you are selling yourself. When pitching an editor, you need to sell not only your story idea, but yourself and your work.

Editors are often bombarded with queries and manuscripts, and they don’t have much time to spare. You need to be able to catch their attention quickly, and get them interested in your story idea. The best way to do this is to have the perfect pitch letter.

I’ve been on both sides of the editor-freelancer relationship. I’ve freelanced for several publications, both in print and online. I was also the managing editor of a print, monthly magazine for college students in Southern California. I received pitches daily, and while some were solid and caught my eye immediately, many were rambling or not right for my publication.

When sending a query letter to an editor, there are several do’s and don’ts to make your pitch as powerful as possible.

What Works:
1.Know Your Target

Before pitching to a publication, you need to read that publication and become familiar with its message and voice. Your query letter should accurately reflect this voice. For example, don’t write for a teen audience if you’re pitching to Time Magazine. You also need to explain in your pitch letter why this story would be of interest to this publication’s readers.

2. Personalize
Figure out who the editor of the publication is, and make sure you contact the correct editor. Your letter should not start with “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Editor.” Direct the letter to a specific person and use his or her name. When the first words of a query were “Dear Mr. Editor,” I was not only annoyed, but I was definitely not going to be accepting that pitch.

Even if you are pitching the same idea to several outlets, you need to make your pitch letters specific to the publication. As an editor, I received pitch letters that had the names of other publications instead of mine. Of course, I stopped reading those letters at that point. Tell the editor why this story is a fit for this specific publication.

3. Make An Entrance
Your intro needs to be strong or the editor is going to stop reading. Pique the editor’s curiosity, and then get to the point quickly. Editors are often short on time (and therefore patience), so you need to get to the point before he or she loses interest. Reread your letter looking for dull words and replace them with more vibrant ones. Make every word count.

4. Keep It Short
You need to be thorough, but your pitch letter is not your entire piece. It should be shorter than one page because no editor wants to read more than that. The basic outline for your query should be: a strong intro, the basics of your story, why it’s a good fit for the publication, what section of the publication it could possibly fit into, and your qualifications as a writer. A short query letter proves that as a writer, you can edit your own work, which is a valuable quality to an editor.

5. Know Your Material
If the editor is interested in your pitch, he or she may follow up with more questions. You should try to anticipate any blanks that were left in your original pitch. Since your pitch isn’t the whole pie, you should be ready to provide the rest of the ingredients in case the editor has more questions.

What Doesn’t Work:

1. A Lack of Self Confidence

Whether you’re new to pitching or a pro, you need to have confidence. Because I worked with younger writers when I was an editor, I got quite a few pitch letters that started out with “I’m not sure if this is something that would work.” Well, you should be sure! If you’re pitching a publication, you should be confident without being cocky. You should feel that your story is a right fit for this specific publication, and that you have the knowledge and skills to get the piece done.

2. Been There, Done That Pitches
Some ideas are pitched over and over again to a publication. At my magazine for college students, writers would pitch the same ideas repeatedly: “How to Lose the Freshman Fifteen,” “Studying Abroad, ” etc. While no editor expects you to have read all the previous pieces in a publication, you should have some idea of what’s been done (and done and done) before. Try to look for new angles to old stories, or more time-sensitive pieces.

3. Vague Pitches
“I want to write about golf” is not a pitch. Your pitches need to be very specific. It needs to be an actual story idea, not a story subject area. Coming up with a unique story is what is going to catch the editor’s eye.

4. Spelling Mistakes and Typos
You’re a writer. If you can’t write a one-page pitch letter without spelling mistakes, how would you write an entire piece? Read that pitch letter over and over—your livelihood depends on it.

5. An Invisible Writer
You need to make sure that you explain your own credentials as a writer, and what makes you qualified to cover this story. List some of the other publications you’ve written for, and explain any expertise you may have on the subject you would be covering. If it’s a travel story on Hawaii, and you wrote about Hawaii for three other publications and lived there for four years, you need to mention that.

Streamlining Your Digital Identity

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What’s in a name? Everything. Yes, it’s that age-old adage again, but for freelance writers and journalists in this internet era, your name really is everything. It is your identity, business, brand, and life. In just a few quick keystrokes, employers, editors, and maybe even your mother can put together the pieces of your life story, whether you like it or not. It’s easy for readers to connect the digital dots and make your Twitter posts, bylines, YouTube videos, and Facebook page into a narrative about who you are and where you have been.

So what do you want that narrative to say? If you don’t take any steps to streamline your digital identity, then others will do it for you. Google yourself. Don’t be embarrassed. See what comes up. If this isn’t the narrative that you want, it’s easy enough to take control of the conversation by consolidating your digital identity with a few easy steps.

1. Facebook Face Lift

Don’t write off Facebook as simply a place to waste your time or procrastinate before a deadline. For freelancers, it can be an invaluable way to tell a little about yourself and get your clips read. Your Facebook page can be a useful tool for connecting with editors and distributing your pieces to new readers. First you need to determine the purpose of your Facebook page. Do you want it to be an intermixed venue where you mix your friends with your business contacts? Will it be a place where both your personal and professional life overlap? If you decide on the former, be cautious of what your Facebook activity says about you. How will your “likes,” comments and posts create an image of you?

If you’re interested in having a personal page that is separate from your public/business page, feel free to make a “Fan” page for your professional endeavors, or use a variation of your name for a personal page.

2. Domain Claim
As new social media sites spring up across the expanses of the internet, it is important to stake your claim with your name. As much as it may be fun to use a cute name or that AOL email moniker you grabbed back in the 1990′s, it’s important to use your real name on social media sites if you want to control your internet visibility.

Snatch up your domain name first, and if you really want to streamline your SEO, register some common misspellings of your name. Then stake a claim on social media and blogging sites Twitter, Linked In and Tumblr, as well as other media sites like Youtube, Vimeo, and Soundcloud. It’s important to snatch up these sites whether you’re going to use them or not. By doing this, you eliminate the chance that someone with the same name as you will publish a YouTube channel with your name that shows nothing but chinchilla dust bath videos.

3. The Name Game

Lastly, think about your own name. How can you get your own name to be noticed in a byline? If you have a very common name, consider adding an initial, or perhaps using your middle name as well. For women, consider using your maiden name. This will distinguish you from the million John or Jane Smiths out there. Your name is your brand, so you want to make yourself stand out. And above all, you want to be “Googleable.” It’s the internet existential crisis. If Google can’t find you, do you even exist?

From Coffee Shop To Office: Professionalizing a Highly Caffeinated Environment

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One of the first thing you’ll realize as a freelancer is that home and work oftentimes don’t mix. Of course, you’ll try to make yourself a productive writer at the homestead — and for the rare few this is a doable — but oftentimes the amount of distraction inside your apartment can be overwhelming. This is where the coffee shop journalist is born, thanks to the plentiful caffeine available and quiet working environment. But even out of the house and away from your flat-screen TV and streaming Netflix set- up, there are ways working at the local java hut can still be an inefficient work zone. Here are a few suggestions on just what you’ll need to make a day at the local coffee shop a truly beneficial work environment and not just a way to surf the internet in public.

1. Find a coffee shop that has free or cheap wireless internet.
While this might sound sort of “duh,” there are still a surprising number of coffee shops, including the big mamma-jamma of them all, Starbucks, that charge for internet usage. And, in some cases, they want an astronomical amount for a day’s worth of use. This is usually avoidable as plenty of mom and pop coffee joints will usually let you use their wireless for a full day, provided you purchase at least a cup of coffee and/or something small to eat. Given how nice that is, it feels awfully fair to throw a few bucks their way and enjoy their free internet for the day.

2. Bring a nice pair of headphones along with all your supplies.
One of the hardest parts of working from a coffee shop is keeping yourself completely tuned into what you’re working on, even if that means transcribing a never-ending interview with the most monotone person alive. If you don’t already own a nice pair of headphones that can allow you to do this, it’s time to invest. While you can plop down hundreds of dollars, there are plenty of nice ones for under $100 that will allow you to be completely absorbed in what you’re listening to and drown out the clatter and chatter of the coffee shop. Pop it in your work bag along with a notepad, pens, dictaphone, and anything else you might need while out.

3. Face away from windows or any busy entry way.
Along the same lines as the headphones, the name of the game with working in public is staying focused on numero uno and your impending deadline, not what the two people across the coffee shop from you are catching up on. Being observant and interested in strangers is an inherent part of being a journalist, so don’t feel bad that you’re eavesdropping left and right, but do limit the distraction by isolating yourself as much as possible in the coffee shop. This means facing away from busy walkways, large social groups, and the entrance, where you’ll be tempted to peek at everyone coming and going throughout the day.

4. Don’t meet up with friends/work together.
While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, being a freelancer isn’t usually about teamwork. It’s tough enough to be a productive worker on your own and, while it can be a bundle of fun to work with fellow freelance writers or friends at the coffee shop, the distraction is usually more than you’d like to admit. Just like studying for exams back in college, it’s usually easiest to just hunker down and stay focused by yourself.

5. Make your work station feel as professional as an office desk would.
Just because you’re sitting at a cramped table in a coffee shop doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it as a professional work space. Keep the clutter to a minimum and avoid big, messy dishes of food just as you would at your cubicle. It can be helpful to replicate a work desk as much as possible, including having your supplies out in front of you and keeping anything distracting, like magazines or books, away from your sight.

6.  Reward yourself with “fun” computer time
The hardest part about a day of work at your computer for people that are interested in the world and pop culture is not becoming lost in a k-hole of web surfing and video watching. While checking news and entertainment sites throughout the day is absolutely reasonable, do yourself the favor of limiting the guilt by just acknowledging that you’ll probably lose a serious chunk of any work day to clicking around websites that are 100% not related to what you’re working on. But if 20 minutes of online shopping or watching videos of kittens falling asleep gets you back in the groove, don’t deny yourself. Just keep an eye on the clock and set a time when you’ll get back to meeting your deadline.

 

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