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. Kirsty Stuart

    Oh dear, I have definitely committed cardinal sin number one. It was a while ago now though. (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

    As Susan Johnston above says though, sometimes it’s hard to pin your sources down for a face to face interview…

    Thanks for this Carol! Ever-helpful as usual.

    • Carol Tice

      We’ve all done email interviews under dire circumstances…but I bristle when they become the norm.

      Now that I’m trolling HARO as an expert myself, to plug my business book, I’m shocked at how many requests are just “Send us the answer to this question and if we like it we’ll include it in our roundup.”

      Not only do these result in poor-quality blog posts, but that writer is missing a golden opportunity to build a relationship with a source. And that’s the other big problem with email interviews — you do not connect with that person. Building your network is one of the most important things you should be doing as a reporter and as a blogger, too.

    • Katherine Swarts

      I’m not sure I get that last point…. are you saying *no* form of connecting “counts” if it’s done entirely electronically? What about the Writer’s Den forums?

      On the “Send us the answer to this question and if we like it we’ll include it” part, I agree entirely. That sounds as if the “interviewer” doesn’t even want to be bothered with the source’s personal opinions and experiences, just wants something to copy-and-paste that will back up whatever point he’s trying to make–and doesn’t mind letting the source know whose convenience is more important.

    • Carol Tice

      No…no form of interviewing sources is nearly as good if it’s on email. Writing each other on a forum isn’t for publication.

      And yeah, these “Answer this one question and I put it in my roundup” deals sort of nauseate me.

  2. Jeanne Grunert

    Good points, but as a professional writer with 20+ years of experience, I strongly disagree with “no interviews by email.” Email interviews are the only way to catch some experts, and if the questions are written thoughtfully, can be a good source of material. It also helps reproduce quotes accurately.

    But I have to add one pet peeve that you didn’t include: ending stories with a subhead such as “Conclusion.” Yes, I’ve seen those too many times to count. Folks, if you need to mark your conclusion “Conclusion”, it’s time to go back to the drawing board!

    • Carol Tice

      Well, we’ll agree to disagree about email interviews. I still urge writers to strive to avoid them. I have had situations where I’ve had to give up and do them…but you don’t want that to be your default or normal mode.

      But using the subhead “Conclusion”? Eek! Haven’t seen that one.

  3. Lindsay Wilson

    I used to face this dilemma often years ago as a student writer for my local newspaper. As a newbie, I found it easier to approach, but I usually ended up calling the source up anyway to clarify things that they had said in the email. That said, if a source offered to send something via email in addition to a phone interview, I’d never say no. You might find something in the email that they hadn’t thought to say on the phone!

    As an aside, to address the fear that writers may have about calling up sources, I used to be petrified of it. However, when I worked on the other side of the fence in PR several years later, I learned that most experts are sitting on their hands waiting for you to call! They pay an agency or in-house specialist to find writers to do just that because it gets their name in the press. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      That is so true! Many new writers may not realize how desperate experts are to be quoted. Really — give them a call.

  4. Katherine Swarts

    I’m a bit surprised there aren’t more “devil’s advocate” comments on the e-mail question. I won’t name names, but:

    -I know many established publishers who think nothing of treating e-mail exchanges like standard interviews. (I know you don’t think much of it either, LOL. And no, these aren’t the dollar-a-word markets, but they aren’t content mills either; mostly they’re in the 15-20-cents-per word range.)

    -I actually posed the question to two other prominent business writers; one could hardly believe anyone would be opposed to the idea, and the other said it was entirely a matter of personal preference.

    That said, most of the above conversations were in the specific context of articles that stick to noncontroversial topics, use multiple sources, focus on opinions and personal experience more than anything–and, again, didn’t involve the most prominent and universally known publishers. So please don’t take me as actually disagreeing with the basic premise, just as suggesting it may not *always* be *quite* that absolute.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, there’s plenty of lowered standards out there. Just want to encourage people not to play along.

      Email interviews suck. If you want to move up as a freelancer, you need great interviews. Talk to people live. That’s my advice.

      Yes, there are places that won’t care…but if you want great clips that help you get great gigs, YOU will care.

    • Katherine Swarts

      And there’s no surer mark than laziness, I dare say, of not really caring. The old “Royal Road” syndrome of wanting something until one realizes one has to choose between it and having things easy.

  5. Willi Morris

    These are AWESOME Carol. Great lead-in to J-School stuff. I have quoted Wikipedia before as a journalist and totally regretted it. (As a Wikipedia article about “Quoting Wikipedia” popped up with my name on it. LOL) The only time I’ve used e-mail for interviews is when it’s a celebrity, and I had *no* other option.

    • Katherine Swarts

      I learned my lesson on THAT one when I sent in a query with several Wikipedia articles in the bibliography and was told to redo it with better sources. I did, but suspect it still had something to do with the query’s ultimately being rejected.

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