Ease in Writing
Writing Tips from Full Circle Communications
February 2009
In This Issue
Fruitful Interviewing
American Idle
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Ease in Writing?

"Ease in writing" comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, the British poet:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

Foot step chartNote he (and I) didn't say "easy writing." But just like dance lessons can help get you around the floor with your partner more gracefully, the goal for this newsletter is to share a tip or two each month so you can improve how your organization communicates in writing.
Fruitful Interviewing
"An interview is just a conversation between a writer and somebody who knows something the writer does not..." says Philip Gerard in his book Creative Nonfiction.

You as the writer need to make the best use of the "conversation." Chances are, you have limited time, may even be under a deadline. Moreover, you don't want to come off as an idiot or only end up with information that is irrelevant or redundant for your final piece--whether it's an article that uses direct quotes or a report that indirectly uses what you have gleaned. listening_ear

The most important thing to do is to listen. Not try to impress the interviewee. Not think ahead to the next question. Not worry if your tape recorder will run out of batteries or your pen will run out of ink.

In addition, a few techniques that have worked for me:
  • Give your subject a general idea of what you will be asking about, but not a specific list of questions.They can focus their thoughts beforehand but not overly so. You have more freedom, rather than having your subject finish question #2, for instance, and then move on to question #3. (Of course, you will prepare for the interview and not assume you can go in and wing it in a casual give-and-take.)
  • Combine closed- and open-ended questions. Just as a written piece encompasses sentences of different lengths, an interview needs different punctuation. For example, in moving to a new topic, you might establish where or when something took place (a closed question), then start probing about his or her reaction to the event.
  • Do not fill every silence. Our tendency is to jump in with another question. Resist. Give your subjects time. Give them the opportunity to add to what they said. A gentle "anything else?" sometimes elicits the most interesting responses.
I am continually learning how to improve my interviews. Sometimes they are great, sometimes a little mundane, depending on the "somebody," the topic, my own preparation, the time constraints, and other variables.  In search of wisdom from others, I asked Mary Collins, a nonfiction writing professor and author of books that have required extensive interviewing, for some tips. Here's what she said--
  • I let them know early on that I know about their subject or work. For example, I cite a passage from their work or make it clear I have interviewed others on the same topic.
  • I open with a few questions to which I know the answers, to know how candid they are being with me.
  • I bring up something personal, even if not relevant to the interview, so we start to make a personal connection.
  • I make clear the interview is just a start, and the odds are high I will contact them again.
Gerard's book has a chapter on interviewing. Other resources on my shelf include The Craft of Interviewing by John Brady and Doing Oral History by Donald A. Ritchie.

Now what do you do with the quotes? Is it kosher to alter what a person says? What if the person wants to review what you write?  Email me if you have any questions about this sticky wicket of a topic that you would like me to cover next month.
American Idle
American Idle: A Journey through Our Sedentary Culture (a great play on words in our popular culture) is Mary Collins' forthcoming book.

To gather information, she interviewed a range of people, using the techniques described above, including a scientist who explained the link between exercise and aging, factory workers, and the director of the U.S. Olympic Center. The book is due out in the fall. Email Mary for more details.

numeralsMary has a knack for developing a narrative around an idea that perhaps occurs to us but we don't think about in broader terms. Another book, The Essential Daughter, looks at how the role of daughters (and sons) within the American family has changed over our history. They work less, but they also lose a sense of responsibility to a larger good.
Attention, Authors!
Have you written a book or article? Do you have a communications-related blog or newsletter? I would love to share the information with others. Let me know what you have created. I'll write about it (and link to it) in another issue of this newsletter.