Oops! Interview Blunders By Laura Bell

Oops is what many of us have said when learning the ropes during our experiences in the World of Writing, (WOW). Being new in the field of freelance writing is kind of like being a medical intern. You’ve read about the ins and outs and now you actually have to go out in the field and perform.

I have a journalism degree and started preparing prior to returning to college by reading Writers Digest, and studying the Writers Market. I read everything I could get my hands on discussing the subject. Even after being published quite a few times by the last year in college, I eagerly signed up for a freelance magazine writing class. In today’s market, there are many who jumped into WOW without a lot of training. Looking at others’ mistakes can help us learn, and give us a couple of giggles.

I’ve made my own bloopers. In the 80s, I got an on-spec feature assignment from Vogue. I thought yippee; I’m going to make it big time. I don’t remember the subject. I do remember not telling one of my interview subjects that it was on-spec. She wasn’t very happy when the article got cut. Many interview subjects agree to interviews because they want publicity. They are not happy campers.

Interviews, whether for features or profiles, can be tricky. Here’s a different twist on the subject. (All names have been changed.) My dear friend Jane has been at the freelancing gig for about a dozen years. Prior to jumping in full-time, she met an interesting woman at the charity where she was working. She pitched a profile on her to Woman’s Day as ëa woman of interest.’ They were so keen on the idea, the managing editor called her. She was thrilled and wrote up the article without conducting an interview. She had no idea she actually had to talk with the woman as well as have a list of questions. She didn’t have a clue. Needless to say, she never heard from the editor again.

Nan, at Linkedin, tells the story of how she made a humorous remark about an interview subject’s name (Alexander Bell). The subject was not amused.

Stay professional with whoever you interview. Admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult. We all had to write for our college newspapers if we took a journalism curriculum. Another contributor at Linkedin tells a story of how she was set to interview a security officer for a warehouse. Before she did so, she entered the warehouse and took some items. She then took them to his office for the interview, unbeknownst to him, and listened to him talk about the security in the warehouse. When she revealed that she’d managed to easily gain entrance to the warehouse, and showed him the items she took, he threatened to have her arrested.

This is a straight forward example of how not to deal with a story. You should not try to get evidence by petty theft. You look for sources to confirm or deny what was allegedly happened and then you put your story together. No story is made via one source unless you are writing a profile. In some instances, this also requires quotes from other people who know the interview subject.

Finally, an example of how an interview can go oh-so-wrong. This is also from Linkedin: A health editor assigned a writer a piece about a nutrition book written by a doctor. The writer got the interview…yet the doctor seemed suspicious of the writer. He demanded the right to review the article before publication. She told him that was okay because she didn’t know any better. The interview was awkward and she later discovered the tape recorder had failed. In the article, she wrote the title of his book wrong.

There are no guarantees in the WOW, world of writing. Things will always go wrong, but here a few things we can learn from these examples:

  • Interviewees can be touchy. Be prepared to deal with them.
  • Ask for the spelling of everyone’s name, even it is Smith.
  • Avoid on-spec situations if possible.
  • When using a tape recorder, take notes to go along with the tape.

Realize that the WOW is an ongoing learning experience. We all learn by doing and there is no quick way to get around the learning curve. Doctors learn through their profession. The same holds true for busy writers.

If you truly jumped into freelance writing without any training, writing while in a corporate position doesn’t count; take a class in freelance writing. You will be glad you did.

Happy writing!

Laura Bell has been a published writer since 1979. Her areas of expertise include: economics, business, health, personal finance and real estate. She has over 400 bylines to her name. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, Small Business Opportunities, the Los Angeles Business Journal, San Jose Mercury News and the Pasadena Star News, to name a few.