One of my former staffmates in Guidon messaged me asking for help with her requirements for editorship. I was never the superstar writer in Guidon, but i got by, and of course I want to help her win– even if it meant playing pretend and making a list of “tips” for newbies.
I wanted to say more, but you should never give away your secrets. Not that i have any earth-shattering ones, but I also didn’t want to come off as overly excited, so I boiled it down to these three. Despite being tips for newbies,, these are more or less the hallmarks of my own writing– and, by extension, life in general.
Build your rapport.
Take time to sit down with your interviewees, even if they say they’re busy– be willing to meet them anytime, anywhere, for as long a time as they’re available. Make it convenient for them, and it’ll be harder to say no to you. (When in doubt, remember: you need something from them, not the other way around.)
More importantly, you’ll be able to go deeper. It sounds obvious, but conduct your interview like a conversation. Don’t take notes– record the interview with a small, unintrusive device (your phone is perfect), sit back, and just talk. Leave all your questions on your screen to refer to if the conversation needs redirecting but otherwise, let it take its own course.
Chase the chaos.
Don’t run away from awkward topics. Word your questions properly, and doors will open for you. Be genuinely curious about who they are and what they do. Don’t just ask a direct question– build up to it. Even if all you need is a quote, let them tell their story. It will always be worth it.
At one point or another, you will be required to interview people who are completely unremarkable. Those people are harder to write about than the psychotic ones whose multiple personalities take turns screaming at you, or the cokeheads with drool coming out of their mouths as they talk because they’re so jacked up on the white stuff. Why? Unremarkable people have no conflict. In the event that you are stuck with one, you don’t have to pretend that they’re anything more than they are. Write what you believe is right.
Otherwise, go with the crazy. Follow the breadcrumbs—find the conflict brewing, and force it to surface. Information is your trump card; make sure you have the the winning hand.
You aren’t god.
And even if you were, journalism doesn’t give a shit.
You may have a “style,” or a “system,” but just because it works on most days doesn’t mean it’s perfect. When I first started out in Features, I used to begrudge the necessity of outlines—until I realized, as I was struggling to meet a deadline, that I was completely off the mark. My outline reminded me that there was a point to be made, and what that point was. There will always be something new to learn, even if at first you don’t think it’s worth learning.
Write with the knowledge that the person reading you has no idea who you are—they don’t know that you failed Spanish in high school, or that you’re deathly afraid of ketchup, and most importantly, even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Your friends may appreciate that line you dropped about how you should live in salt or how the landslide brought you down, but obscure references don’t make you a good writer. You can tailor your writing for an audience, but remember: there is power in anonymity. Leave your “feels” on Twitter, and save your inner artiste for Instagram.
And if you’re feeling invincible because other people compliment your writing, ask yourself: are they worth listening to? If not, there you go. If yes, don’t believe them.