Subscribe to RSS - Tricks of the trade

Cracking the tough interview subject

Locker room image via Shutterstock

Longtime New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi discusses some of his hardest interviews and how he got winning quotes from some of the sports world's surliest stars: "As a sportswriter, about half the time I was interviewing someone who’d just lost. So sportswriters must have — or at least show — some empathy. And yet you’ve got to ask questions that could be embarrassing or even highlight the subject’s weakness. The point is that you need a response, a quote."

The importance of a book's title

Bookstore shelves image via Shutterstock

Erik Larson discusses the art of choosing a book title, and how he sometimes considers and rejects hundreds before picking one: "Titles are important. They should convey not only a sense of the book’s subject, but also a feeling — will this be a funny read, or a contemplative one; is it a book I’d like to read at poolside, or in the dentist’s chair waiting for the Novocaine to kick in; will it transport me to an imaginary realm, or knock me flat with trauma and despair."

How to avoid misattributing quotes

Maya Angelou stamp unveiling

"I never said most of the things I said," Yogi Berra said. Or did he? Denise Graveline offers some tips for tracking down — and debunking — famous people's quotations: "I'm not as worried about the paraphrased quote, or even the one attributed to your daddy. But the misattribution issue is not as small a problem as it may seem. Even the U.S. Postal Service misattributed a quote on its Maya Angelou tribute stamp, a mistake so expensive they aren't going to correct it."

Some suggestions for handling quotes

Quotation marks image via Shutterstock

Don't be afraid to tidy up a quote, but be careful about adding words, using dialect, or combining quotes from different interviews, Roy Peter Clark writes in a guide to getting quotes right. One example of Clark's guidance: "When you quote, imagine that someone has taped the interview, even if you have not. It can be a problem if you quote someone in print and then see the source on television the next day using different words than the ones you thought you captured."

Spotting problems with a story's theme

Drama masks image via Shutterstock

Denise Graveline writes about some of the most common theme-related problems she sees in speakers' scripts: "Every dramatic arc relies on the high point of a crisis to put the drama in the arc of a story. But if we love crisis and failure, it's because we're hoping for redemption: what you learned, what changed, where it led you, why it's better today. I see lots of speakers aiming to emulate TED talks who do a great job on the failure, and forget the redemption."

Can focus be the enemy of creativity?

Creativity image via Shutterstock

The real solution to writer's block might lie in the same confusion and chaos that gives rise to it, Christie Aschwanden writes in a discussion of a new book by University of Central Florida computer scientist Kenneth Stanley: "If you’re trying to create something new, an objective can stand in your way. Seeking novelty instead of objectives is risky — not every interesting thread will pay off — but just like with stocks, the potential payoffs are higher."

Pascal on the elements of persuasion

Stick figures with wrenches image via Shutterstock

Psychologists say an indirect approach works best when trying to change people's opinions, whether the subject is a social issue like gay marriage or a scientific one like climate change. Maria Popova quotes the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal as saying roughly the same thing almost four centuries ago: "People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."

The art of a good (i.e. brief) explanation

One of the biggest challenges that science writers face is explaining complicated technical matters without bogging down their stories, Carl Zimmer writes in a guide to keeping them lively: "The most important step in explaining something well is to figure out what’s the minimum amount of explanation required for readers to understand your overall piece." Zimmer writes. "You can then try to make your explanation as delightful to read as the most unexpected plot twist."

Insider websites as a reporting tool

Hands on keyboard image via Shutterstock

Months before news broke of fraud in a gay-marriage study, it was a topic of conversation on PSR, an online forum for political scientists. Ben Lyons writes about one reporter who used it, and warns of potential pitfalls in doing so: "Entering a community of snarky, cloaked insiders can pose problems. Forums like these tend to build unspoken norms over time and treat interlopers harshly. Journalists seeking information may want to do a little research before diving in."

Suspense as a key to public speaking

Jack-in-a-box image via Shutterstock

Speakers should take a cue from novelists and screenwriters by structuring their talks to build suspense and spring surprises, Denise Graveline writes: "'Breaking Bad' kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of 'Freedom,' or 'My Brilliant Friend,' or 'Anna Karenina,' all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy."