Archive for March, 2012

Be sensitive when conducting interviews

The toughest task in good journalism no doubt is staying true to the facts.

The next toughest: getting them.

Whether coming from paper or people, information-gathering affords certain challenges not apparent on its face. Myriad nuances present both opportunity and obstacles; the clinching detail may drop easily within a journalist’s grasp, only to become suddenly unreachable due to a computer glitch or an administrative oversight. Or, maybe, the people holding that key detail in their heads decide at the most inopportune moment to keep it to themselves.

For the first two problems, calling a tech-support specialist or a knowledgeable and sympathetic administrative staff subordinate may shake the facts loose. For the third, a finely tuned sensitivity in conducting interviews tends to do the same.

That sensitivity is not an emotional one; it’s rooted in preparation and in paying keen attention to the interview subject, two things that require time and commitment in advance of the interview. So, before sitting down to question anyone at length for a story or news report, take care to prepare:

Do research — This, more than anything, makes a good interview. How much you know about the person you’re interviewing and their expertise will be reflected not only in the questions asked, but also your attitude. There’s a saying that goes, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge also evokes confidence, and a confident interviewer is a disarming one. Besides, doing the research also is a show of respect to the interviewee, and a little respect can leverage a lot of information.

List discussion points — Subsequent to the research, the pertinent questions become clear. But to be sure that clarity carries through to the interview, take along a list of discussion points or questions, if for no other reason than to help maintain the interview’s focus should digressions or distractions crop up.

Put people at ease — A comfortable interviewee is an open one. So, if time permits, start off by explaining how the interview should proceed and encourage the interviewee to ask questions about it. Another good ice-breaker: mining one’s natural self-absorption. Typically, our favorite discussion topic is the person we see in the mirror. If that isn’t already the interview’s central theme, start there to show you’re interested in more than just the reason for the interview.

Once they’re at ease, let them talk — Along that line, interviewees may wish to unburden themselves of pre-interview stress or whatever else they have pent up that makes them tense. This could require letting interviewees ramble until their defenses come down. Again, if time is short, the easing period will hinge on one or two key questions designed to hasten relief. Good research will determine what kinds of questions these ought to be.

Don’t finish sentences — Patience is a virtue, and it’s best to appear virtuous when plumbing for personal or sensitive information. Let people avail themselves of silence between questions to organize their thoughts and cultivate answers to questions. Filling in blanks for them only fosters ill will and frustration, and may close people up after you’ve worked hard to get them open.

Record the interview – Another distraction is note-taking, for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Scribbling forces interviewers to try doing two things at once. The interviewee, meanwhile, sits waiting for the pen to stop scratching before finishing their thought, during which they may forget what that thought was. Moreover, note-taking reduces eye-to-eye contact. Give the interviewee all your attention, the better to also stay tuned to changes in facial expression that clue you in to answers possibly going deeper than words. However, feel free to jot down occasional details you’ll want to revisit in the interview or make special mention of while writing the story later.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Four tips for better self-editing

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.

Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.

However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:

Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.

You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …

It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.

Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.

Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Style, the law, and good writing

The two best tools for freelancing are a good idea and a comfortable place to write. Cobble together those things with confidence and conviction, and there’s no limit to a freelancer’s potential.

As far as the rest of the tool list, it varies for each writer. Some prefer pen and paper to keyboard when crafting first drafts; others are particular about the word processing software they use. Still others extend their devotion to include the hardware itself: PC or Mac, tablet or laptop or desktop system — it all matters only in the final product.

However, there are a few tools, mainly reference material, that freelancers probably should warm to before they sit down to write. These materials tackle presentation and precision, probe the law and explain the journalist’s right to information. Not every freelancer will need all of these, mind you, but those intent on practicing journalism alongside the best reporters out there will find them to be valuable assets on the journey to discovery.

Style guides — Clarity and consistency are hallmarks of good writing and reporting. Making sure copy is clean and crisp is the least that freelancers can do for their readers, and editors, as those qualities are what keep audiences engaged from first paragraph to last. No matter how good the story, if it’s not easy to read or understandable those failures will reflect on the writer long after the story is tossed in the trash.

Of course, a dictionary and a good thesaurus are crucial to have on hand. But consider, too, style guides and manuals that detail the writing standards established either for general good communication or for specific publications, such as medical and legal journals, academic and government documents, as well as magazines and newspapers. Freelancers should assess the style preferred by a particular publication before sitting down to write, because sometimes improper style is enough for an editor to shelve or discard a story.

Journalists everywhere tend to consider The Associated Press Stylebook as gospel and have now for decades. Though each newspaper or magazine may also publish a “house” style guide for reference points close to home, adhering to AP style should be enough. For general non-journalism purposes however, the Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most widely used guides on the market, and includes a wealth of detail the AP guide does not. And rising fast in esteem, the Yahoo! Style Guide covers a wide range of topics regarding digital and online media.

Among the field-specific guides are the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, the American Medical Association Manual of Style, and The Gregg Reference Manual for business writing. But to satisfy uncertainty about which guides are out there, a long list of links to them can be found at

Shield laws — Also known as “reporter’s privilege,” these amount to legislation existing in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia that protect journalists from revealing confidential information or sources in court. Essentially, they prevent courts from forcing journalists to testify about how they obtained information related to a story. The laws vary with each state; there is no broad federal protection. Some shield laws apply to civil but not criminal cases, while others prevent revealing sources but not other information. Freelancers should educate themselves on the law in their respective states and the states they may visit to do their reporting. The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a good place to start.

Freedom of Information — Enacted in 1966 to promote and enforce government accountability, the Freedom of Information Act originally required unfettered access to much unreleased information and documentation that was in federal control but since has been amended several times. Consequently, variations on access exist not only in Washington, but also throughout the country, compelling many states even to establish their own “sunshine law” guidelines. As with shield laws, the degree of access can vary widely between states. The Society of Professional Journalists has a section of its website devoted to this topic and includes a drop-down menu listing links and contact information regarding sunshine laws in each state, as does the Reporters Committee.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Quarterly Taxes for Beginners

By Paula Pant from Afford Anything

New to the world of freelance writing? You might be surprised to learn that you have an added responsibility to Uncle Sam: many freelancers need to file taxes every quarter.

Traditional employees have taxes automatically withheld from their paycheck. As a freelancer, however, taxes are not withheld from the checks that your clients send you.

The government won’t let you get away with deferring your taxes for a year. You’ll need to pay estimated taxes quarterly. Here’s a brief explanation of how to do it:

Step 1: Look at your most recent tax form. Find your total tax and your withholding. On a 1040 form, this would be written on lines 62 and 63.

Step 2: Subtract your total tax from your withholding. The result is your liability.

Step 3: Divide your liability by 4. The result is your estimated quarterly liability.

Step 4: Mail your estimated quarterly tax to the IRS by the four deadlines: January 15, April 15, June 15 and September 15. Include Form 1040-ES, which helps the IRS process your payment.

I’m simplifying this explanation for the sake of giving new freelancers a very quick overview of the general process. Your experience might be much more involved.

For example, you may need to make adjustments if your tax liability is significantly different than it was last year. This may happen if your income this year is dramatically higher or lower than it was the previous year. It can also happen if you qualify for different deductions.

In this case, consider calculating your estimated taxes based on this (current) year’s income. Here are a few longer articles explaining how to do this:

Want to have a little laugh about your taxes? Check out this article from SPJ’s Independent Journalist blog archives, Funny Taxes for Freelancers.



Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be misconstrued as tax advice and/or legal advice. While I have made every effort to include accurate and complete information, I cannot make any guarentees, and laws and codes change frequently. Always consult with a tax professional and legal professional.

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