How to Reach an Unresponsive Source

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If you’re a writer and you live on planet earth, you’ve probably dealt with an unresponsive source. It’s frustrating when an interview subject won’t return your call or email. After all, you’re promoting their business and expertise, aren’t you? Plus, you’ve probably got a deadline looming.

Keep in mind that your interview subjects are not running on your timeframe. Maybe that’s obvious, but I have to remind myself that my priorities are not their priorities. I’m essentially inserting myself into someone’s busy day. On top of that, I’m expecting them to be articulate and (if they’re a community expert) to be present enough to offer good advice. That’s asking a lot, especially if someone’s not used to being interviewed, as is sometimes the case with local business owners.

Here are some of the methods I’ve used to get unresponsive sources to call or email me back.

Hit ‘Em Twice (or Thrice) 

Maybe it should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. If you have an email address and a phone number, use both. Some people read emails and, once they’re no longer bolded in their inbox, forget about them. Leaving a voicemail will often speed things along. Also, does their organization have a Facebook page? If so, try contacting them through it. Facebook posts the length of time it takes a page to respond to messages. It’s right on their page, so most organizations try to keep their responses timely. 

Be Up Front About What You Want

When I email a source, I am thorough. I briefly explain who I am and why I’m writing. I let the source know exactly what I’m looking for and my deadline. (I often give a deadline ahead of my actual deadline to give myself enough time to talk with the source and write the story.) I emphasize that my intention is to feature their expertise and their organization (hello, free publicity). Also, if the organization advertises in your magazine, which is often the case, you might mention that so they can be sure you’re an insider. 

Get Someone Else to Help

Let the person who answers the phone know why you’re calling. I take the time to explain myself to the person who picks up before asking for my source by name. That way, if the source isn’t available, someone else at the organization can help track them down. I’ve had sales people offer to call a manager or CEO at home to notify them that I’m trying to get in touch and that I’m on deadline. Super helpful.

All that said, there’s a source who’s assigned to nearly every story I write for one local publication. I email and call him each time, employing the above tactics. He never responds. I finally told my editor that I don’t think he’s interested. She called him, got a hold of him, and he assured her he’d get in touch with me. That was a month ago…Sometimes, not even bringing in the big guns will get the job done.

So, how do you get the attention of unresponsive sources?

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What Do Editors Look For in a Freelance Writer?

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When I was editing the alumnae magazine at my alma mater, I was asked the question “What do you look for in a freelance writer?” My answer, I’m sorry to say, was, “That depends.” It depends on the theme of the issue. It depends on what kind of story I’m looking for. Are you better at people profiles, at straight reporting, at writing ad copy? Or, maybe you contacted me with a great story idea that I can’t refuse.

I can’t tell you what every editor looks for in a writer, but I can tell you what skills I appreciated in the writers whose stories I edited. I came up with these three qualifications, which help me when I’m pitching to editors. I hope they help you too!

Your Expertise is Useful

Can you do tech writing? How about copywriting for Facebook ads? Maybe you can read about what happened in the Supreme Court last week and translate it for a reader that doesn’t speak legalese. If you make it clear that you can offer expertise in a challenging area, I’m more likely to offer you freelance work. You are inserting your expertise into my gaps in expertise. And that’s valuable to me.

You’re a Versatile Staff Writer

Say you didn’t contact me with a bang-up story idea I couldn’t resist. Say you sent me some writing samples and asked me if I could use you for regular freelance work. I’m more likely to say yes if I can see that you’ve written a wide variety of stories on different topics and in different styles. Can you write a story about a staff member for a campus newsletter, then turn around and write about scientific research as it relates to the average person? You’re in.

You are Conscientious to a Fault

I can’t say it enough: proof and proof and proof again. I was recently on a hiring committee that was reviewing resumes for a social media position. The minute someone noticed a typo, that resume was in the trash. If you are putting your best foot forward, and you type “summery” instead of “summary,” that’s not a good portent of things to come. Editors notice mistakes. It’s their job. Proof your writing samples and your query letter. Then have someone else proof them. As your editor, I want to know I can trust you to be accurate (and, frankly, to not create more work for me).   

Bonus points if you see that my publication adheres to Chicago Style and you make mention of your familiarity with Chicago style in your query.

Those are three basic qualities I looked for in a freelance writer.

Tell me: What qualities do you promote when you query an editor? I’d love to hear about any feedback you’ve gotten from editors too!

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