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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Ask These Questions to Get Great Quotes

Ask These Questions to Get Great Quotes

Few things make a writer’s life harder than a difficult interview subject. My most dreaded interviewee is the monosyllabic type.

Me: So, you’ve always been passionate about art?
Them: Yep.
Me: …

Ok then.

How do you, the writer, draw this person out so you can include great quotes in your story? Here are some interview tactics I’ve found useful. 

Get Specific

First of all, my question about art is too broad for my monosyllabic interview subject. How can she possibly say everything she feels about her art or art in general during one interview? Safer to stay quiet and wait for a question she can answer. To elicit a quotable answer to such a question, get specific.

Try one of these:

  • When did you first begin drawing/painting/making felt reindeer antlers?
  • Which artists inspire you and why?
  • Can you tell me about your process in creating felt reindeer antlers from start to finish?
  • What is your favorite part of the process and why?
  • Does making art run in your family?

Put the Tongue-Tied at Ease

Second, if you write for a local/regional publication, or for, say, a college website, your interview subject may not be used to talking to the press. You may be interviewing a local contractor, a bakery owner, or a biology professor. Giving A+ interviews isn’t usually in their job description. Help them out by being extra friendly and asking questions that draw out their expertise.

I once talked to a talented horticulturist who could not, for the life of him, give me advice on how to revive dying plants—until I lowered the stakes and made him feel more comfortable by saying: “Can I ask you a question about a plant problem I’m having? I have a brown thumb and a dying spider plant. I just can’t get the thing to perk up. What would you do?” I could have written a complete guide to houseplants based on his answer. Sometimes playing dumb helps.

Put your interviewee at ease like this:

  • I’ve never heard of [cool thing interview subject does] before. Can you tell me how you first learned about it?
  • I just can’t get [related thing] to work. Would you mind giving me some advice?
  • Wow, you have a real talent for [cool thing]. Were you always interested in [cool thing] or did you do another job/kind of artwork/type of research before this?

Help Them Brag

Third, your interviewee may be worried about tooting their own horn. But your job is to toot their horn. So how do you get them to say how awesome they are? You ask questions that lead to grand statements.

Try one of these:

  • What is your vision for your business in the future?
  • You must be an inspiration to the people around you. Do people look up to you? How do you handle that responsibility?  
  • What do you think makes a good leader?
  • If you could tell others only one thing about your business/vision/work, what would it be?
  • How do you hope other people will carry your vision forward in the future?
  • Is there a quote or are there words of wisdom you live by? Why do they mean so much to you?
  • Can you tell me about the awards you’ve won?

A final note: Try the “Anything Else to Add” question.

This is one of my favorite interview questions and I add it onto the end of every email or phone call interview. I simply type: “Anything else you’d like to add:”. The colon is important (via email). It shows them that this is the place where they can go off task. Here’s their chance to say whatever they want to say. And sometimes this question will lure a great quote out of a subject because they’re not trying to guess what you want to hear. They’re instead focused on saying the thing they’ve wanted to say but haven’t been asked about. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I have a collection of hi-res photos if you want to see them.” Um, yes, yes, I do, sir. I thank you and my editor thanks you.  

Tell me: What questions do you ask to get great quotes?

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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