Ask a writer: How do you find sources for a story?

‘I work my contact book directly, then shake down the contacts of contacts, call professional organisations, Google – whatever it takes! Networking and perseverance are all.’
Glynis Horning, freelance journalist and author

Ask a writer: How do you track down people you’d like to profile?

‘Get hold of the person well in advance. Use Skype to phone people overseas if you know they’re coming to your city. Many newsworthy people have their own websites. I go onto a website and look for those two magic words: ‘Contact us’. First, I email the person, setting out the story. Then I phone and follow up. I find it very easy to get hold of people using the Internet. I recently saw a new archbishop had been appointed, and approached a magazine to write a profile. It was so easy to get hold of him – I phoned the diocese and they gave me his cell number and landline. People think it’s difficult, but it’s not! If you have somebody’s name and Google, you have it.’
Judy van der Walt, freelance writer and photographer

Q. Should I write notes or record?

Scribbling notes while someone talks can distract you, preventing you from absorbing their full facial expressions and meaning. On the plus side, you simply go through your written notes at home, highlighting which quotes to use, and write them up. Recording an interview, on the other hand, allows you to give your subject your undivided attention and pick up on their character, quirks, body language and other visual cues. But listening to an hour-long interview afterwards in search of quotes to transcribe can take up to three hours. Which method is better? Try both out, and decide which works for you.

Hot tip! Short on time? Interview by phone…

A face-to-face interview inevitably runs on for over an hour, and then there’s travelling time to factor in. Face-to-face sessions can eat up a whole morning or afternoon. Phone interviews, on the other hand, may take just 10, 15 or 20 minutes, and wham, bam, you’ve got your information. People tend to be more focused on the phone. Cut time costs further by typing their quotes directly onto your computer while your subject is speaking to you on the phone.

…Or email out a questionnaire. Especially for service pieces where you need to gather a zillion nitpicky facts about products and services, you can save time hugely by emailing your sources a questionnaire. They fill it in and email it back to you (remember to specify the date you need it back by), improving accuracy and saving time. Some people, however, may not have time to type out answers, so offer them the option of being interviewed telephonically too.


Keeping your cred

From magazine editors to patrons of hair salons, readers need to trust that the information below your name is true. When researching, be as impeccable, impartial and truthful as possible. Only use information you trust and sources you’re sure you can rely on. That way, if a reader or editor queries something you’ve written, you’re able to substantiate your facts – and save your ass.

Credit all quotes. Lifting text from another article, book or website – in short, using verbatim anything written by another writer without paying and crediting them – is plagiarism and is illegal. Writers and authors, websites and magazines own copyright to their work, and need to be paid and credited when their words are used. You’re allowed to use a short quote to illustrate a point or as a lead in to a point, as long as you acknowledge the source; in this case, you don’t have to pay. But don’t think you can create a story by stitching together a whole lot of quotes and hope that acknowledging them will suffice. When quoting, always use quotation marks so it’s clear which words are by the other writer, and say who and where the quote was published.

For example:
‘Best-selling author Marina Lewycka knows about endurance. After all, it took her 40 years and 36 rejections to get published. Only at age 58, while working as a media studies lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, did she became a publisher’s pin-up with the semi-autobiographical comic novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which has been translated into 20 languages.

Lewycka has found that fame comes with its own problems. Since the runaway success of Tractors, she can no longer walk down a supermarket aisle with anonymity. As she told The Guardian in May 2007, “If I go out now wearing my old jogging trousers and trainers, with my hair looking wild, people know me, whereas they didn’t before. I was just another mad woman going down the road.”’

Record your research. This makes fact-checking (and life in general) much clearer and easier.

As you’re researching a story, keep a record of every person you speak to – name, position, occupation, company, phone number, email address, and the date. I do this in a big black ledger book.

Also make a note of every reference book you use (title, author, publisher, page numbers) so you can quickly find it again if you need to go back and credit sources, for example.
Keep newspaper clippings. Remember to write the name and date of the publication on the clip itself.

When recording an interview, state at the beginning who you’re interviewing, for which story and publication, and the date.

Don’t throw away any piece of research connected to a story. File everything and keep it in a secure place, just in case. It’s part of being a professional.

Be upfront. In general, if you’re recording an interview or phone conversation, inform your interviewee of this. Say, ‘Are you okay with me recording this?’ Besides the fact that it’s illegal to record people without their knowledge in most countries, telling them is sporting and honest, and honesty encourages people to trust you and open up to you.