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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

So you’ve found your perfect interviewee, the world authority on something you’d like to learn about. This may be for a magazine or newspaper feature – with its inevitable deadline and requirement for accuracy. Or this conversation may be the last chance you have to ask your grandfather about his childhood. (He’s the world authority on that, after all.)

Whatever its purpose, the journalist’s tool of ‘the interview’ promises to give you all the material you need. But the human ear is fallible. What if you mishear or misinterpret what is being said? What if, in the excitement of the moment, you miss the main point?

The solution could be to record your conversation.

There are advantages. If, as a freelance writer, for example, you are working on several projects at once, having a clear recording plus a note of name spellings etc is invaluable. And, if you don’t keep your projects separate, there is always the clear and present danger of misremembering and mixing up.

Recording an interview can save you from the embarassment of going back to the interviewee with further questions. And, as a journalist, you don’t want to do this. Given this sort of opportunity, interviewees have been known to change their minds not only about what they want to say but also about whether they want to be interviewed at all. You can imagine the wasted time and effort this represents.

So what sort of recording is best? Digital recordings are much more reliable than the old-fashioned tapes used to be. It used to be the case that one technical hitch and you were scuppered. Now you can also find recorders that filter out background noise – useful if you are obliged to interview Grandad on a hospital ward. And, being a belt and braces sort of journalist, I would never rely solely on recordings. I would always take my own notes as well.

Some digital recording systems provide you with e-formatted transcriptions of the conversation. But make sure you read the tin! Some can only transcribe one voice, having been trained to recognise this. Most involve training of some sort, and some also involve discouraging cost. And remember this is at best only the starting point.

The next step – transcribing the recorded conversation – can seem difficult, time-consuming and hard work. I know it is. When I was a cub reporter, as a matter of course, I had to transcribe my own interviews.

However there are several benefits in doing this.

Firstly, when I had to do it regularly, I could hear the sub-text quite clearly in the tone and inflection of the interviewee. This sub-text may not be obvious from a set of notes – hastily scribbled, probably distracted by traffic, rain and other delights. Secondly, over time, you get quicker – developing your own shorthand.

But, the main advantage of having a digital recording – which, as you must inform your interviewee, is part of the deal – plus your own transcription is the freedom and vitality these gain for you.

Some people swear by the email interview. This, they say, gives the interviewee flexibility. The interviewee can answer as many questions (of, say,10) as s/he wants, when s/he wants. ‘Lots of material, without pressure, and with no follow-up calls or emails necessary.’ A further advantage of this, they say, is that you receive the material in e-text.

But, in my view, for this to succeed without losing that all-precious vitality, the interviewee must be:

vWilling

vAble to write concise, accurate copy.

And your questions must be incisive and based on a broad and deep knowledge of the subject.

Email interviews may on the surface seem an easier route. But you could find yourself doing much more research and reading to arrive at the answers you, your editor and your readers need – questionable savings in time and effort.

And could Grandad, in his hospital bed, be bothered to answer an email? Would he not sooner talk to you? And you to him?

Personally, I commend the belt and braces of notebook and digital recorder.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In an ideal world, written English would be equally easily understood by both the man on the street and/or a professor of jurisprudence. But – as well as transmitting information – people use language to include or to exclude potential members of their own sub-group.

To illustrate: from the lowliest clerk to a High Court judge, legalese tags the brother- and sister-hood of the Law. Doctors use medical language to protect patients from too much information. Academics mark out the territory of their expertise through the words they use. And, whenever you start a new job, you have one hundred days to learn the ‘in-phrases’ that will allow you to join the groups you need to join. Once in, you may be able to change these phrases, but, first, you need to add them to your repertoire and deploy them!

People use written English in the same way. Switching styles can be a challenge. You may, for example, be required to write in academic English for a learned journal or you may choose to use conversational English for a weblog. And in professional communication, the trick as ever lies in choosing the right style for the right audience.

Here, focusing on two styles – academic and conversational – are some useful guidelines:

v Essay structure and the chronological parable You may be asked to write a discussion article in the form of a debate. So – in good Ciceronian Style – you state the topic, set out the arguments for and against and draw your conclusion. But the formula for a blog entry is much simpler. Adopting the commonsensical Aristotelian approach, you ‘tell a story’ – usually with a beginning, a middle and an end.

 

v Word choice in academic English

Writing academic English, you’ll probably favour:

  • formal over informal words, choosing Latinate terms (such as ‘select’) over more easily absorbed common terms (such as ‘pick’).  
  • impersonal over a personal tone. Academics adopt  an impersonal subject rather than personal pronouns such as the Narrative ‘I’. It sounds more erudite. But your statements will be more tentative as a result (eg.‘It is considered that . . .’ as opposed to ‘I think . . . ‘)
  • the use of the passive over the active voice. This is another device for distancing the writer and/or the reader from the activity – such as ‘Housing was demolished by bombs’ instead of ‘Bombs destroyed the houses.’
  • the use of technical terms. These assume a level of knowledge, making members of the audience/readership ‘insiders’.

 

To achieve a conversational tone, you would do well to adopt the alternatives:

  • informal words
  • personal pronouns
  • active voice

And avoid technical terms at all costs!

 

v Sentence Structure

Academic English favours complex Latinate structures, – including subordinate clauses and phrase. This ensures  optimal amounts of information are included in a sentence. As a result, an academic sentence may run to over 25 words.  High quality journalism deploys sentences of up to about 18 words and advertising favours sentences of about 14 words long. But dialogue, naturally, may use 1-word structures. And the conversational English used in blogs represents the sentence patterns and structures of speech.

 

v References vs. anecdote

Academic writing – in putting forward arguments to support a thesis – cites references as evidence. Conversational English adds ‘flavour’ by offering stories and anecdotes to support the point being made. Journalism comes anywhere in between depending on the audience.

As demonstrated here, switching styles is a form of translation. And practice makes perfect. Look at your own work and familiarise yourself with the patterns of each style you need. You’ll then be able to highlight the words and phrases where your chosen style falters.

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Over the years, it’s become clear to me that audience impacts on ‘the writer’s voice.’ As a journalist, I found this a simple formula. You give the readership (represented by the editor) the information it needs in language it can understand. But in other forms of writing – and communication – this co-relationship exists in varying degrees of subtlety.

Creative writing is influenced by audience even if – as in journaling – the audience consists of one person. This ‘one person’ may be split into two, creating – optimally – the friendship of your ‘self’ with your inner editor.  But in this raw state or even if you refine your materials into poetry, novels, short fiction or plays, you remain the first and most important member of your ‘audience’ (more…)

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A workshop participant recently asked about the art of silence.  In communication, silence can be an effective tool – because people when they have something to say – and sometimes when they don’t – can’t resist filling a silence with something . . . anything. It’s a very human response. Silence is always there and from the moment a mother and baby meet, each wants to fill it with communication. (more…)

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