Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tips for writing features #3: Anyone know anyone...?

As a features writer, I've spent a lot of my time asking variations on this question: "Does anyone know anyone who [insert wears blue nail polish/howls at the moon/is willing to get naked for a readership of 500,000+/had a baby early/had a baby late/had a baby on their own/had a baby with another mum/etcetera etcetera etcetera]. Most features in the lifestyle category require at least one case study. Preferably three. Or, five. Or, gloriously for one particular story, nine.

When I first started out as a journo, case studies were a nightmare. Imagine yourself sitting in an office, with a phone and a computer that's not connected to anything but the wall. The internet is 'happening', but not in your sphere, not yet. And you need to find someone over the age of 40 who had a baby on their own (just as an example). Your social network has an average age of 22 and is spectacularly free of mothers of any age. Where do you start?

By ringing everyone you know, of course. Which is why my friends learned to 'accidentally disconnect' the phone every time they heard my voice on the end of it. Particularly once I started at CLEO and they discovered that many of my queries involved either nudity or embarrassing public disclosure or both. It becomes a measure of one's charm, tenacity and sheer bloody desperation that some of those stories come together (see here for details of one particularly memorable feature).

That particular job involved phone call after phone call, and arm twisting, and convincing people that a 'really nice professional photo' was reason enough to get involved. Ingenuity helps. When in need of naked people, start with the professionally body conscious: strippers, life models, body builders. In need of brides with unworn wedding dresses? Thumb through the classifieds - and then be prepared for some awkward 'Hi, I'm from CLEO, how do you feel about sharing your heartbreak?' conversations. Looking for first home buyers? Ring a real estate agent.

Of course, the internet changed everything. Suddenly, we could advertise on a magazine's website for people to contact us to get involved (bliss). There's an association for everything and every association has a website with contact details. And now there's social media, where one 'tweet' can garner a dozen responses - perhaps not definitive case studies, but all-important leads. (If you're needing a case study, I recommend you check out - dream service.)

One thing I learned through those earlier, desperate years, however, is this: not every case study is the right case study, and it's really, really difficult to explain to someone who's keen to be involved that they're not 'right'. The reasons they might not be right vary wildly, but mostly it just comes down to the angle of their story not being strong enough. Yes, you need to fill a hole in your story with 'real person quotes', but if those quotes don't advance the story there's no point. On one memorable occasion, I tracked down 34 different case studies before finding the 'nine' (yep, that's the story) that the editor was happy with. Often, it's not until after you've done the interview that you realise it won't work out. Which makes it even worse.

So what's a girl to do in a situation like this? The same thing that writers have done since time immemorial. Blame the editor.


  1. Very true - nodding my head in agreement here. What did we do before the internet indeed? And I just re-read the pin the tail on the donkey story which made me laugh all over again.

    The no-fee thing is always slightly awkward. The 'your husband will have to appear in the photo' another. And the fact they can't have copy approval.

    Some of the case studies on the hashtag for journorequest make me laugh. They get more and more outlandish. And I can just picture the editorial meeting. Have you ever had tell anyone they weren't photogenic enough to appear? Well, you wouldn't actually give that as a reason I'm sure. Do you know someone who's had a baby on Christmas Day who makes their own chutney and it's their second marriage and they married their cousin who lives in a commune who has an STD?

    I used to have to find people to appear on property programmes. Like you say, all my friends soon got wise to it and ran when they saw me coming there was no shortage of people who wanted to appear. But finding the right front room with the right couple who were a)televisiongenic but also had a good story - will they divorce, will the house sink into the mud, will they have a baby before the build is finished, etc etc was much harder than finding the house.

  2. ...and I thought it was all invented!

  3. Bit garbled there with some words omitted altogether. Shoot the sub!

  4. @Deer Baby @Tricia Rose LOL at both of you. They're never invented and you never, ever mention the photogenic qualities or otherwise. Ever.

  5. Oh yes, I remember those days. The worst thing was when you would finish the story, photos etc and then the subject would decide at the very last minute they didn't want to appear after all, because hubby, best friend, mum had talked them out of it. Or when one person/couple would be left out of finished feature because they weren't erm, photogenic enough. At one stage one magazine used to refuse to give the go-ahead to use case studies until they had seen a current photo of them. Try explaining to would-be case studies why you need a photo now ...
    I must admit I get cross when I see journos/writers advertising for case studies on twitter and sourcebottle. It was never so easy for me. A writer should have to suffer for the art of writing for magazines.
    And now I just sound like a cranky old journo ...

  6. @Bronnie Marquardt Oh, yes, I know too well the joys of the 'I've changed my mind' chat. Nightmare. Always on deadline. And I know what you mean about the kids of today and how much easier it all is - but that doesn't stop me embracing the technology. I mean, it's just SO much easier. And you can advertise the fact you need a photo up front. :-)

  7. Ah yes, the case study. Over the years Le famiglia Tait has been represented rather well in the media. The amazing thing is that gathering case studies probably requires more investigative journo skills than an expose of trafficking. That said, reality TV has surely helped your cause? Gone are the days when airing your dirty laundry on the front verandah was frowned upon. (BTW, I realise that my comments on your site are often garbled and incoherent. I'm not drunk, just on the Crack.) X

  8. I get so much wisdom from reading here. Wisdom, I hasten to add that I take great pleasure in passing off as my own.
    Henceforth I too will blame the editor. For everything. Even though, technically I don't have one.

  9. Oh man! Those phonecalls were the worst! I notice you don't call anymore? I thought it was because I have moved out of the cool demographic, but alas! It may just be that you have new ways and means of making people talk!

  10. Oh shudder - nine case studies - shudder... I remember when I started out having to go to the FILING CABINET to get out a FAXED press release to search for a contact name on the bottom - no wonder I break out in a cold sweat at the concept of filing.

    Must dash, need to find a few case studies...

  11. I am so in love with this blog - thanks for Seraphim for the guest post that sent me over here...

    First I have to say, I have been that editor and even I would encourage my journos to blame me whenever they were in a sticky situation, it's the universal solution!

    And can I just say O.M.G how did I not know about Sourcebottle? As I am leaving the wonderful world of editing and returning to freelance writing myself, this site will be my new best friend.

  12. I always wondered where you found case studies... ;) Thank god for the internet!!

  13. I used to do a bit of that too, in my former life - worst was having to find widows under 40 who were also good-looking. That was the commission that broke the camel's back, actually, and when I occasionally work now, I confine myself to one-page features about deep and meaningful things like, 'Don't dogs have cute faces!'

  14. I must send this to my daughter...she works at CLEO, and yes...despite my age I've been on the receiving end of 'hey mum, do you know anyone who...'!

  15. I blame the editor all the time when the posts that go up in my blog don't meet my standards ;)

  16. And demand to be paid by the hour, not the word! Tracking down and vetting leads, naked or otherwise, takes buckets of time. =>


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