Blake Snow

writer-for-hire, content guy, bestselling author

As seen on CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox, Wired, Yahoo!, BusinessWeek, Wall Street Journal
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Tagged writing

How I interview people for information

I’ve had several discussions this past week on the best way to interview someone in the name of journalism. Here are my thoughts, methodologies, and best practices when trying to extract pertinent information from key individuals.

  1. Realize you’re interviewing a human being with feelings. It’s imperative that you are courteous and respectful even if you completely disagree with the person or they have a tendency to spin everything (spin frustrates accurate information, so that can be discouraging, I know).
  2. Ask straightforward questions without context when possible, e.g. “Why did X happen?” as oppossed to “Given blah, blah, blah, and yada, yada, yada, why did X happen?” When you must use context, be sure to be as objective as possible when prepping the question.
  3. Be fair. I know an individual that walked straight up to a Sony executive and asked him outright if the executive thought his employer was arrogant. The executive scoffed at the question and immediately walked away leaving the reporter with nothing more than an eye roll to report on. Bad idea. Bad approach. And definitely not fair. Even if someone shows heavy signs of what you’d like to reveal, you have to come at those questions sideways like, “What do you think about X?” in which the interviewee will most likely make known your hypothesis to be true.
  4. No hints! When reporting, please don’t drop sparky hints. You’re readers aren’t retarded, and collectively they are much smarter than you. When it comes to straight news, just report what happened piecing together the story in chronological order while distilling information in inverted pyramid form so readers can ditch a story when they like.
  5. View the interviewee as an asset. Remember that the interviewee has information you want access to. Use tact in getting said information so your audience can make an informed decision.

Anyone else have thoughts on interviewing for information? Comment if you got ’em.

Making others look good

Humility is the most admirable trait a human being can posses. I’m convinced of that. It enhances all other personal qualities, and it motivates me to be a better individual, both professionally and personally.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a story for GigaOM. I was proud of the piece. I thought it was well covered, well written, and pertinent to my audience. Then I saw my editor’s edit. Wow! He completely transformed the copy into a much more vibrant and personable article. Granted, my points remained, he just sizzled them up to make the reading much more enjoyable.

He then emailed my article to our publisher for dissemination and — while CC’ing me on the email — said I did a great job on the piece without mentioning his sizable renovations. We could have easily shared the byline, but instead he just made me look ninja good without asking or wanting any credit in return. I was humbled by the experience, and realized I could do so much more in helping others prosper without recognition or payment. So yeah, do your best to try and make others look good.

[Thanks, James!]

What to do when you disagree with a paying client’s changes?

When I’m not helping companies flex their web muscle, I enjoy writing. I got my start as a independent blogger here on Smooth Harold. From there I started a few other blogs which later secured professional gigs on larger blogs and traditional websites/magazines. But I’ve been spoiled as a blogger as I’ve never had to deal with editorial overrides until recently. In case you didn’t know, bloggers ARE the editors for virtually every online publication. We decide the headline, angle, tone, image, and word use. It’s rather liberating. 🙂

I wrote my first “non-blog” article late last year. The editor kept my headline and whatnot, only changing a few words here and there. The changes were very minor and even added some clarity, so I didn’t mind. A few articles later, a different editor at another publication restructured a few sentences of mine after I sent in my final draft. Though I disagreed on a few of his changes, for the most part, I was fine with them. Especially his copy edits to the headline which were better than my original. So it was all good.

Today, however, I sent in an article that was getting published in a few hours. I really liked my tone, word selection, and to an extent, my okay-headline. Shortly after, my editor (read: boss) sent back a radically and controversially angled version. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and to make matters worse, I disagreed with the new-found premise. His headline was sure to foster more link-bait, but at the expense of what I thought was “a stretch” of a story. I sent back my differing thoughts to which a compromise was made. I then updated my story under his direction adding additional clarification to his edit, and the article went live.

After reading the my piece in published form, I went back and decided that I liked my original piece better with its accompanying angle and tone. In hindsight, I think it would have been better received. The take-away of all this? It’s nice to have your cake and eat it too as an experienced craftsman. Any Smooth Harold readers out there ever experienced the same? I suppose I should have seen this coming, as paying clients always have the last word, despite your creative opinion.

5 ways to become a better writer (according to George Orwell)

Pick the Brain has abridged George Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing. All together now:

  1. Don’t use cliches. We’re all guilty of this, but avoid them at all costs. Writing should evoke emotion. Cliches are cozy expressions that humans don’t internalize, thereby no emotion is felt.
  2. Be concise. Wordy thoughts don’t sound intelligent, well-structured sentences do. (If I hadn’t written #1 above, I’d say “Less is more,” here.)
  3. Strip out filler words. Trim the fat from your sentences. Never use two adjectives when one will do.
  4. Use active voice over passive. The man wasn’t bitten by the dog (passive), the dog bit the man (active). It’s shorter and more forceful that way (Latin-based languages do this very well).
  5. Avoid trade jargon. If you want your ideas to spread, avoid technical jargon in favor of an everyday word.

Thanks, George!