Research and writing go hand-in-hand.
When you’re a freelance writer–rather than an employee–the need to research becomes even greater.
Traditionally employed writers tend to focus on researching their news/article sources: Their statistics, quotes, images, and other facts all need to be checked and re-checked.
Freelance writers have THREE forms of research they need to perform:
1. Writing Research
2. Client Research
3. Self Research.
So let’s get into it…
If you’re interested in becoming a freelance writer, I’m going to guess that you already have this part of the job mostly down. But here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re new to the research process:
- If an article references “a study done” — go look at the study for yourself.
- If an article says “in an article written about blah So-and-So said” — go look at the original article where So-and-So said whatever about blah.
- Look at all views, not just the one that you agree with.
I’m not talking about the research you do when you seek out clients on your own. I’m talking about the research you’ll need to perform when a client comes to you.
When a potential client comes a-knockin’ on your door, you’ll need to do a quick assessment — a background check, if you will — to make sure they’re not a shyster out to con you.
As a naive beginner I was suckered a couple of times. Had I done more thorough research, I would have turned down those so-called “opportunities” from the get-go.
You won’t be able to avoid getting the occasional crummy client, but if someone is REALLY bad, their terrible reputation will shine through. Scam artists, pyramid schemers, non-payers, and general ne’er do wells almost always come into the light once they’ve crossed enough people who are willing to speak out.
Research helps protect you from getting wrapped up in shady dealings.
But, even if the client is a good person — someone you really want to do business with — you’ll still need to do your research.
One of the earmarks of a pro is they ask a lot of questions.
What kind of questions?
You’ll need to ask…
- When do you need this by?
- How many words/pages do you need?
- Do you need me to go into the backend of your website to upload this article, or will you be doing that yourself?
- What’s the best way to contact you?
- Will I have a by-line or is this a ghostwriting assignment?
- Do you have a budget set aside for this project?
- Have you worked with a freelance writer before?
- Why do you feel you need a freelance writer?
- What is your ultimate goal for this assignment?/What are their expectations? (Are they trying to inject personality into an overly dry brand? Are they attempting to drive more traffic to their website? Sell a product?)
- How do you envision the final product?
- How often will you need to be updated? (Every day? Every week? At the end of each phase? When the project is completed?)
- Who will own the intellectual rights to the finished product? (Can you use the finished project as a portfolio piece, even if the rights ultimately belong to the client?)
- What do you dislike–or like–about what you have now? (If they already have something written).
Those questions are just examples. Adjust them as needed.
Self Research AKA Getting Feedback
I call this “Self Research” because you’re essentially researching yourself — your performance — through client feedback. That’s right: The research process goes BOTH ways. (What goes around comes around!)
The most pressing reason to request client feedback is to prevent negative reactions/criticism later on.
Simply asking your client what they think can not only prevent future problems, but give you the chance to correct any that have already occurred.
What’s that? You want more reasons?
Okay. Here ya go:
Some clients/customers will simply disappear.
Rather than tell you why they’re leaving you or what’s wrong with your product/business/personality, some people will just…go. That is, unless you give them an easy outlet to do otherwise.
When you gather feedback, you gain the ability to correct what doesn’t work or–on a more positive note!–enhance what does. You’ll also be able to get rid of old products that just aren’t cutting it anymore. Or create wonderful new ones!
Get to know your target market.
As copywriter extraordinaire Amy Harrison once said:
“Comments let you stay in tune with your target market. You can test new ideas, find popular problems or questions to solve with products and attract new customers.”
It makes them feel important.
And they most certainly are important! But think about how you feel when a business makes you feel good about yourself. Makes you want to stick around, huh? Yep. Improving relations: Just another reason gathering feedback is awesome.
Being a freelancer is all about constantly trying to better yourself. You won’t be able to do that from within a vacuum. Get an outsider’s perspective, always.
Speaking of outsiders… You’re going to need to talk to them sometimes for interviews!
Admittedly, this is one of the tougher parts of researching. But it’s also one of the most rewarding. The next section will teach you how to get and conduct interviews.
How to Snag One!
How do you snag an interview?
No, really. It’s usually that simple. Most people love to be interviewed! All you have to do is ask them.
But there are a few more things you’ll need to keep in mind when snagging (and then conducting!) an interview.
Even though most people love to be interviewed, no one wants to be interviewed by a jerk. (“Be nice” is good advice outside of interviews as well!).
Tell them it won’t take much of their time.
When you hear the word “interview,” do you automatically think of an hour-long TV special? Or maybe a grueling job interview? A lot of people do! But the truth is, most “normal” interviews take 15 minutes or less. Let your potential interviewee know this. Especially when you’re interviewing someone ultra busy without a lot of time on their hands. (Which is, let’s face it, everyone).
Let them know they’re important.
Because they are! And because they’ll put more effort into it if they know it matters.
Let the interviewee choose the date and time of the interview, but…
…make sure it’s well in advance of your deadline. And let them know you’re writing down the date/time they’ve chosen so they understand it’s a firm deadline. (This is mainly for phone/in-person interviews. E-mail interviews aren’t as strict, but we’ll get into that further down).
Know who you’re speaking with ahead of time.
This should be a no-brainer.
Know what they do.
Sometimes you know who you’re going to be speaking with, but you don’t know what they do. I had an incident like this back in 2006 when I was honored with a chance to speak with Daniel Clowes for a reporting gig I had at the time. I had a general idea of who he was and what he did, but I knew I risked rehashing old news and asking stupid questions if I didn’t study up on him. So I read every piece I could find on him and even bought/read some of his comics! Familiarize yourself with your subject. This will allow you to…
Write down some questions ahead of time.
You’ll think of more questions as you go along, but you’ll want to have a few “starter” questions to get things rolling. Don’t walk into an interview and say “Oh, um, hold on a second while I think of something to ask you.” Ugh.
Show an interest in them and what they’re doing.
Think you’re going to get a good interview out of someone when you’ve got your chin on your palm and your eyes half-closed (“Yaaaaaawn…yeah…uh-huh…that’s nice…”)? NO WAY! You get what you give. Be friendly and open. No one wants an indifferent (or angry!) interviewee.
Warm them up.
Don’t just jump in. It’s the equivalent of going to class and having the teacher yell out “POP QUIZ!” Yuck! That won’t make anyone happy. And it’ll make for a stiff interview. Take a little time to engage in some friendly banter before grilling them with questions.
The 3 Methods to Conduct Interviews
There are three major methods to conduct interviews:
- In person.
- Over the phone.
- Via e-mail.
And they’re nearly indistinguishable!
I’ve conducted interviews in person, over the phone, via e-mail, and — in the case of Muay Thai fighter Goran Karamfiloski — via instant messages.
Here are my thoughts on each method:
Conducting interviews in person:
This is probably the most glamorous method. And often the most fun/exciting. However, it’s also the most difficult. Not only is it harder to set up an in-person interview, it’s also harder to get the interviewee talking comfortably once you do meet up with them. Of course, when things go well, this is the most rewarding method. There’s nothing quite like feeling the chemistry of an in-person interview–being able to ask questions on-the-spot and seeing an interviewee’s reactions in addition to hearing their answers.
Note: If you decide to use a recorder, don’t depend solely on your device. Jot down notes as well. I was recently interviewed by a student reporter who insisted that she didn’t need to take notes…and I ended up being misquoted numerous times throughout her article.
At the very least, write down the most important pieces of information (the spellings for names & products, for instance). And, of course, the best way to contact the interviewee should you need to ask follow-up questions.
Conducting interviews by phone:
These tend to take less time, which is nice. It’s also much easier to take notes. And the interviewee tends to be less nervous. It also saves money to do an interview over the phone (gas for you and hourly billing for them)!
Personally, even with the benefits listed above, this is my least favorite method of conducting interviews. It depends almost solely on technology. Your phone might drop the call, the interviewee’s phone might be crackling, and/or they’ll speak too quickly for you to take proper notes because they can’t physically see what you’re up to.
Note: There are ways to record phone conversations, which can be helpful; though many of these devices/programs are more expensive than they’re worth if you’re not going to use them often enough to justify the cost. Only invest in a phone recording device/program if you’re conducting interviews on a regular basis.
And, of course, you’ll need to tell your interviewee that you’re using a recorder–just as you would in person. It’s illegal not to. Of course, in telling them, they may stiffen up. Recording devices have that effect on people.
Conducting an interview via e-mail:
This isn’t as fun or exciting as the first two methods, but it’s also my favorite. For one thing, you don’t have to worry that you’ve written down or recorded a quote correctly–it’s right there in the source’s own writing!
As Linda Formachelli puts it:
“E-mail works well because the source can think about the questions and answer them at her convenience–even at 3am while you’re sleeping! Can’t do that with a phone interview.”
E-mail interviews are perfect for times when your interviewee is in a completely different timezone!
On the downside, you don’t get the opportunity to engage in some of the spur-of-the-moment questions that come to you only during a “live” interview. (But if you’re using a “questionnaire” format like my own interview series or if you’re only looking for a few source quotes, this is still the best option, in my opinion.).
Note: For a news piece, you’ll have to state that you conducted the interview via e-mail. Which can sound a little strange. Example: “I’m truly beginning to question Quillson’s love of noodles,” said Sean Nobody in an e-mail interview. (See what I mean?)
Why Conduct Interviews at All?
Interviews aren’t just for showcasing talent–they’re also for gathering info.
If you’re a writer, you’ll need to interview sources for articles. And press releases. And a number of other things.
No matter what field of writing you go into, brushing up on your interview skills is a good idea. No one succeeds in a vacuum.
Get out there and talk to people!