5 Telltale Signs of Lazy Article Writing — Avoid These Blunders

Carol Tice

Lazy writer dozing on laptopI meet many writers who are sick of earning $5 or $10 an article on content mills and want to move up to earning real money — $.50-$1 a word or more.

But the problem is, when you’ve been writing cheap SEO articles for search-engine robots to read, you don’t learn how to write the sort of compelling articles people want to read. And that’s the kind that pays well.

In fact, you can develop a bunch of bad habits that will get you into trouble when you’re writing a great-paying article gig.

Writing for magazines involves doing some real research and reporting. If you don’t watch out, your magazine editor will think you’re a lazy writer and won’t want to work with you again.

What are the bonehead mistakes you don’t want to make that will have editors thinking you’re a slacker? Here are the top five I hear from students in my 4-Week Journalism School course:

1. Can I interview sources on email?

Not really, no. Emails are not interviews. When you use the word “said,” it implies you spoke to someone.

If you want to quote from an email, you should disclose it:

“That’s crazy,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response.

And you can see how awkward that is.

You don’t want to do email ‘interviews’ anyway, because they will never be as interesting as what you’ll get talking to someone live. As you chat, you’ll always think of more questions to ask, you’ll see which way to lead the conversation, you can ask follow-up questions…and none of that’s going to happen via email.

Email Q&As may be a staple on blogs, but good-paying markets aren’t going to want to pay big money for them. What makes you worth more is your ability to draw out a subject and get them to say something sparkling, funny, insightful, provocative, unique, or outrageous. You won’t get that in an email.

2. Can I use my friends as sources?

Not usually, and especially not as a new writer.

Your job as a reporter is to go out and find people who are either experts or experiencing the thing you’re writing about. These are supposed to be people you do not personally know (though they could be people your friends know).

Using your personal friends as sources creates a conflict of interest, in that you wouldn’t want to write anything that might embarrass your friend, even if it were true and shed light on the story. So steer clear of your friends and do more research to find good sources.

3. I know this topic. Can I be the expert?

Unless you’re writing an essay or opinion piece, no, you can’t.

As the reporter, your job is to gather information from experts and keep your own opinion out of it. Use your expertise to help you know what questions to ask and which people to interview.

4. Can I quote passages from an author’s book?

No. That’s something you do for school papers, but it doesn’t work for magazine articles.

The editor will be expecting you to get on the phone or meet with the author and get some fresh quotes from them. You might quote the opening line or conclusion of the book for a sentence or two at most, if they’re particularly remarkable. But the bulk of the insight should come direct from the author’s mouth.

5. Can I quote Wikipedia?

No, and here’s why — Wikipedia is created collaboratively by all comers and is not necessarily accurate or up-to-date.

As a reporter, you need to find the first place that published that survey, and then call them up and make sure they haven’t updated that survey since it first came out. You need the most recent data or news, from the original source.

What Wikipedia can be useful for is links. Check the bottom of a page, and you may find some legitimate sources cited, such as a New York Times article or a research firm’s press release.

Follow those breadcrumbs to the source of the news. Then contact and quote the person or research firm yourself.

 

Are you sensing a theme here? Many writers apparently want to avoid talking to live humans when they’re writing stories. They’d rather skip the sleuthing to get to the source of an item and make sure the facts they’ve found are all still true.

I know — interviewing can feel scary. But getting out and talking to real people is the only way to deliver the sort of article that’s worth $1 a word.

If you need to, practice by interviewing a friend. Then, do an interview piece, even if it’s for your own blog. Start getting some practice in pro article skills, so that you can move up to better-paying article assignments.

Have you done interviews for articles? Leave a comment and tell us how it went — or what’s holding you back from doing it.

54 Comments

  1. Luana Spinetti

    I’m alright with email interviews for blog posts, mostly because in blog posts they mainly serve as quotes. Email is great for quotes, after all. But I wouldn’t write a feature article – or even a short department piece – to a magazine with email-only interviews/chats.

    This is my biggest problem with living in Italy– using the phone to make calls in the US is too expensive and cellphone networks are kind of weak in my area anyway. All I can do is use Skype (now that I got it to work with Linux!) or another VoIP solution. I’m working on my feelings this week to try and be brave enough to start using Skype the way a journalist should. LOL πŸ˜› I guess I’m ashamed of my Italian accent and the fact that my listening skills aren’t top notch– but as Sophie Lizard told me, I shouldn’t worry about asking my source to repeat things; and listening skills will improve over time.

    After the Writer’s Mind design overhaul taking place tomorrow, I’ll have to start planning interviews to writer friends and successful bloggers. It’s a dream of mine now itching to become reality. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the wake-up call, Carol!

    ~ Luana S.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Luana — I have to strongly disagree that “email is great for quotes.” I think email is awful for quotes!

      You simply do not get the spontaneity or the interaction that you will with a live conversation. People are editing and sculpting what they’re saying as they type. You get stiffer and more measured responses rather than getting sources to loosen up and tell you what they REALLY think. πŸ˜‰

      For any magazine, they will expect you to talk to people, not exchange emails, as you know. It’s simply a muscle you need to develop, the art of interviewing people.

      Just plunge in, and remember to talk nice and slow on Skype as it can have hitch-ups. Between that and an accent it is challenging, but you can overcome it.

    • Luana Spinetti

      Hi Carol. πŸ™‚ So far, the need for quotes in my blog posts has been minimal and an email chat (I’d rather call it a ‘chat’ than an ‘interview’, because you just don’t ‘view’ each other!) sufficed to the need of short information, regardless of tone and spontaineity. But I can tell you— I’m trying to pitch Metro Parent and I got in touch with a local source via email to get a line to include in the pitch… and I’m having second thoughts. Every freelance guide I’ve read so far says it’s fine to connect via email and ask for a line to include in the query, because if I get the assignment I would still need to get the phone for a live interview. But are there magazines out there that require short live interviews even to get a few information for the query? In all honesty, I would feel uneasy if I were to phone a source twice– for the query and for the assignment.

      Aside from that doubt, though, even the shy little Luana in me believes a human touch is much better than a cold message. I can see how readers can tell the difference.

      On a more personal side, I think interviews might be therapeutic to me (you know– those issues with anxiety, depression and social phobias I mentioned in the past..). I used to be in a relationship with a boy from Malta years ago– and he didn’t speak Italian. Wow, we shared love and tears in English over the phone and I even knew how to fight in my second language! LOL. Where has my bold face gone? I need to get some back.

      Thank you, Carol. πŸ™‚

      ~ Lu

    • Carol Tice

      Luana, I don’t know what you’re reading that says email interviews are good. You have to stop feeling “uneasy” about talking to a source more than once, because actually that is the norm! Often, your editor will ask for one more piece of information and you’ll end up calling them back anyway.

      Realize that experts are dying to be in the media, and really don’t mind.

      What sells a query letter is a GREAT quote…and you’re going to get that live, not on email.

    • Luana Spinetti

      Well, that’s reassuring that it’s the norm! And that I won’t come off as a pest if I call more than once. Thank you! πŸ™‚

      ~ Luana

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