Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘writing

Time to make the Donuts

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The only thing I like better than writing is building databases.  You would think those would be reversed considering writing is thought to be more of an artistic endeavor.  Creating spreadsheets, by contrast, is head down, butt in the seat, grunt work though, as someone who writes, I know writing can be its own kind of torture.

But there is something about the researching; the lining things up, the sorting, the cross-tabulating that I find fascinating such that the days or weeks or months it takes me to compile that data is as much the reward as the surprises the data reveal.  You would think filling rows and columns would be laborious and tedious and mind numbing.

Each piece of data helps build a picture that I anticipate like a kid’s first time visit to Disneyland.  I’ve always been like this.  I know I have to do this digging and shoveling, sifting and stacking.  But I also know that when I hit “Tabulate”, pictures in each cell start to move like pages in a flipbook and that is thrilling to me.

As I work on this book, I am digging as deeply as I have ever dug and I know what I’ve done so far hasn’t gone nearly deep enough.  I can be OCD like that.  But when the researcher is satisfied that he has found every article, report, study, white paper, message board or blogpost, he will hand it all off the the writer who trusts every ladder rung has been stress tested.

The writer will take that roiling vat of information and move to Step 2 of the process; corroboration; turning facts and assumptions into thoughtful and intelligent questions that people in the know can confirm (or refute).  Questions that I hope show the people I’m asking that I have done my homework.  Because nothing annoys professionals more than amateurs who waste their time.  These are busy people and my subject – money and how public radio stations get it – is at the heart of what each of them do everyday.  The writer will then take everything and exhaust pens, pencils and toner cartridges on reams and reams of paper.

My editor will first pat me on the head and tell me it’s clear that I’ve been thinking hard about this, but then fill the other side of the page with notes.  My graphic artist friend will tell me my ideas for artwork are good places to start. My programming friend will make me stare at numbers I’ve already stared at for months and make me make them make more sense.

And I will (for the most part) listen to these people because they are smart.

I hope the interviews I get, supported by the rows and columns I’m filling now, help me create something new and helpful to everyone who cares about public radio, listens to public radio and wants it to be the best it can be.

Time to make the donuts.

Write Stop Write Stop Write …

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Writing an article can be like running through the woods at night looking for notes tacked to trees. You kinda know where you’re going. And you kinda know what you’re looking for. But if you don’t get where you’re supposed to be in time with what you’re supposed to have when you get there, you’re monster food.

I do interviews, but not only audio interviews for podcasts. I also write freelance articles, like the one I’m finishing up right now for Hilton Head Monthly. I’m working with a volunteer medical clinic called “Volunteers in Medicine – Founder’s Clinic” in Oregon City, Oregon. Its mission is to provide free care for chronic conditions for the uninsured. And since I don’t have enough to do, I told them I’d help with their outreach. That led to me convincing an editor at the magazine to take an article I offered that connects the first VIM clinic on Hilton Head Island to the Founder’s Clinic; #86.

I spent a feverish week or so requesting interviews, sending off questions, receiving photos and transcribing answers. And two days ago, when I figured I had gotten everything from everybody that I was going to get, I closed my eyes and saw this huge pile of stuff sitting on top of a barrel of gunpowder wired to a ticking clock.

This is how writers see the world, by the way. Everything is a deadline, and mine is today. So why am I not beating the keys on the project? See the title of this post. Writing is so hard, that you have to take breaks. You have to have distractions. If I sat down and wrote the article straight through, I guarantee it would sound like something you’d read from a drop down HELP menu. In other words, it would be complete, but one dimensional; flat. It would read like all I did was transfer information from one medium to another. It would have no soul. Oh, and I’d be insane.

Writing an article requires the writer to play a role similar to the interviewer’s role, but fussier. The interviewer is lucky. They work with the interviewee’s words and only their words. An article, by contrast arranges history and mission, personalities and issues into something the editor feels OK passing along to readers. So that makes how stuff is arranged very important. Is it chronological? Yes. Is it order of importance? Yes. Is it first person narrative? Yes. Or no. I don’t know. And you don’t always know. Sometimes, it’s all of them. Or one of them. Or none of them. See the photo accompanying this post. And until the editor accepts it, all the work and the stress might be for nothing. Will it be accepted for publication or rejected? And if it’s rejected, will it be because it was too flowery, wordy, irrelevant or flat?

That’s stressful. But if this post is anything, it’s an example of how goofy writers can be. I mean, I’m doing more writing right now, what … as a way of relaxing? That’s crazy. Oh, look at the time. Break’s over.

Written by Interviewer

July 2, 2013 at 00:42


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There are two ways to write a story.

One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time.  In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not.  Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring.  But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence.  God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.

The other way is to start out by knowing nothing.  You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective.  You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions.  You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases.  And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships.  You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams.  And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write.  And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.

That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends.  But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go.  You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2013 at 10:16