Posts Tagged ‘LinkedIn’

Taking Oral Histories: A Different Type of Interviewing Skill

February 6, 2016

One of my 2016 New Year’s resolutions was to try one different thing to improve my writing skills each month. So the last week of January found me attending an Oral History 101 workshop at The History Center in Tompkins County with about forty other people.

Here are a few things I learned from presenter John Lewis:

  • Oral histories are a way to gather data we can’t get any other way. However, they don’t stop there. A really good oral history collection should allow a historian to make links, associations, and connections that no one saw before.
  • As with any interview, an oral history requires some research before you even sit down with your subject for the first time. Lewis explained that without this background, you won’t be able to recognize key nuggets of new information or experience those “Aha!” moments during the interview.
  • Listening to, and really hearing, the person you’re speaking with is key. At the same time be aware of nonverbal cues (i.e. body language, pauses). You can always circle back to a topic or question that you feel wasn’t answered fully.
  • Before you begin, jot down a few field notes such as where the interview takes place, the date and time, the subject’s appearance and demeanor, and if anyone else was present. Make sure that the place you’re conducting the interview is comfortable for the interviewee.
  • Be transparent.  Tell the person whose history you’re taking the type of information you’re collecting, how it will be used and under what circumstances, and who else will have access to it. If your subject hesitates or seems uncomfortable, it’s best not to move forward at that time.
  • It’s essential to be very comfortable with the recording equipment you’re using. Have a backup (like your Smartphone or even pen and paper) in case of a malfunction.
  • At the interview, review how you did. Conducting oral history interviews can involve years of practice. Identify any mistakes you made and try not to repeat them next time. It’s especially important not to react, verbally or nonverbally, to what the person says as this may cut the interview short or inhibit the conversation. Try to look neutral, safe, and supportive at all times. One thing you can do is use silence as a way to elicit more information.

Like me, Lewis finds Studs Terkel, bestselling author of many diverse books of oral history, including Working, The Good War, and Division Street: America, a standout oral historian. If you haven’t read his work, check him out.

Or, if you have a favorite oral historian, let me know!

How to have a Really Good Interview

January 21, 2016

As a feature article writer, a journalist, and a budding nonfiction book writer, interviewing ends up being a huge chunk of my daily work schedule. Fortunately it’s a part of my job that I like. In fact, I enjoy my interviews almost as much as the writing process or the thrill of seeing my articles online or in print.

Not everyone feels this way. In fact, for some professionals, interviews are torturous minefields, which somehow never yield the material they want or the satisfaction that comes with a job well-done. For those of you that feel this way, I’ve put together three tips that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Always do your homework

Never begin an interview without having some basic background information about who you’re talking to. This investigative work can take a little time but it will be worth it-trust me. You can look up your source on their business or organization website or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. You can read their blog if they have one. Or simply Google them and see what comes up. This gives you a feel for who you’ll be speaking with and any photos you find will also give you a visual image to relate to if you’re doing a phone interview, or a way to recognize them if you’re meeting in a public place for the first time.

The same goes for the topic you’re covering. You should have some idea of the history behind it, current issues related to it, and why you think your readers will find it thought-provoking and informative.

Warmup exercises work

I usually lead into my interview by asking if the subject has any questions about me, the publication I’m writing for, or the book I’m writing coauthoring. At this stage, sometimes people will be anxious or apprehensive, especially if they’re new to interviewing, saying things like “I’m not sure I have anything valuable to share” or “Maybe I’m not the best person for you to talk to”. Reassure them that they probably know more than they think! Then ease into the interview by asking straightforward questions about their job title, how long they’ve been working in their field, and any special qualifications or experience they have. This tends to remind them that they really do know what they’re talking about.

Questions can make or break an interview

I always try to write out at least five questions beforehand. Not doing this can lead to awkward pauses and silences or, even worse, an abruptly terminated interview if the source feels like they’re wasting their time talking to you. These questions are meant to be guideposts, not written in stone, and you can always add to, or abandon them entirely, if the articles focus changes during the interview.

Open-ended questions will usually elicit more information or perceptions. Expounding on a topic is by asking things like “Your thoughts?”, “Can you give me an example?”, or “Tell me more about that” works well for me. If you don’t like the answer you got to a particular question (i.e. too short or it felt like the interviewee was avoiding it), you can always instantly rephrase it or circle back to it near the end of the interview. If you feel like it’s essential to the interview, don’t give up to easily.

Remember-If you approach each conversation (because that’s what a good interview will feel like) with a genuine curiosity and an open mind and heart, things will almost always go well.

What’s on my Bedside Reading Table?

January 13, 2016

Winter is a fantastic time to curl up in your bed or your favorite chair with a good book (unless it happens to have been hijacked by an entitled dog!)


Here’s what’s been keeping me company so far this month.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This was a Christmas gift from my friend Tammy and I loved it, even though I cried bittersweet tears at the end. We all know someone like Ove, a cranky oldster who has an intensely developed sense of what’s right and wrong and who has no problem voicing his opinions regardless of others’ feelings. Ove is what used to be called a “man’s man” in that he has only owned Saab’s his whole life, has a solution for every problem, and can fix anything that is broken, with the possible exception of his shattered heart after his beloved wife passed away. Just as he’s decided to end it all for good, an army of unlikely saviors invades his quiet, orderly home. These include a battered, strong-willed cat, a pregnant young Persian mother, a juvenile delinquent trying to better himself, and Rune, his oldest neighbor and occasional friend, that he’s been feuding with for too many years to count. Ove’s gradual transformation from a bitter, angry senior into a vital part of his neighborhood and community, is heartwarming without being the least bit sappy. And his ultimate victory over the Swedish bureaucracy is nothing short of miraculous. Besides that, it’s a funny book. I was hooked in the first chapter when Ove goes to the store to try to purchase an “O-Pad” from an IT guy and I found myself laughing out loud more than once after that.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This issue of Writers Digest featured an interview with Jojo Moyes and I was instantly attracted to her professional and personal style. Since I just happened to be passing a bookstore in Pirates Alley in NOLA, I wandered in and purchased this book which Moyes says she had received more personal letters about than anything she has written in her long career. It took me a week to open the first page though. Frankly, I found the storyline of a local girl becoming a personal aide for a rich young wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, somewhat daunting, if not completely depressing. But, the novel was fantastic because it turns out that both of the characters, from polar-opposite backgrounds, actually need each other to make themselves whole again. It also offers you a unique look into the world of someone who was once physically active and now, due to a freak accident, has no use of their limbs, and the casual cruelties and indifference others can inflict on them, either purposefully or unknowingly. Despite its potential to be a major downer, the book is anything but that. It’s a romance, it treats dark subjects with humor, and it openly and compassionately addresses the “die with dignity” and quality of life issues that touch many of us in some way.

And, a retro read, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I haven’t read this book since high school and I’m not sure what prompted me to pick it up this month but I absolutely loved journeying across America with Steinbeck and his French poodle, Charley for a second time. There could be a number of reasons for this. First of all, Steinbeck was sixty when he took the trip, just a little older than me, which is a far different life stage then when you drive cross-country as a young and unencumbered twenty-something. I would still like to make the trek from sea to shining sea one more time before I get too old or unhealthy so seeing him do it successfully was inspiring. Steinbeck is a realist, not only sharing the good parts of his tour, but openly discussing the bad, scary, and sad parts too.  Plus, he’s such a descriptive writer that I’d find myself reading certain passages over and over again, particularly some of his observations as he travelled through the South, trying to deconstruct how he did it, how he chose and positioned words to bring out a particular feeling in the reader. Best of all, was his assertion that “people don’t take trips, trips take people”. Don’t we all want to be transported somewhere else sometimes, even if it’s only in our minds?

Ringing in 2016 with a NOLA New Year’s Celebration

January 5, 2016

Some people like to ring in the New Year with a bang; innovative cocktails, loud bands, crowds, and a fireworks display preceded by something large dropping from several stories above their heads. Others prefer to hunker down at home with a fancy dinner, a few friends, and a good movie. I’m an unabashed member of the former group so this December 31 found me in New Orleans ready to whoop it up with my husband and two sons, native Louisianians, and fellow tourists. I wasn’t disappointed.

Our afternoon started at the 801 Royal which claimed to have the best with Bloody Mary’s in town. Garnished with giant olives, lemon, lime, and dilly beans, they were a work of art, as well as semi-healthy and affordable. The bar and restaurant have a relaxed, neighborhood pub feeling and conversations flowed along with the drinks.

801 Royal

Next up was the annual Sugar Bowl Parade, featuring a plethora of dedicated high school bands from all over the South, floats manned by enthusiastic people tossing candy, beads, and potholders to the shrieking crowd below, and the requisite fire trucks. Though the game wouldn’t be played until Saturday night, Ole Miss Rebels and Oklahoma State Cowboy fans were already gearing up for it and their passion was contagious. I can truthfully say I have never seen so much orange in one town!

Parade float

Being NOLA New Year’s novices, we neglected to make a reservation for dinner and were repeatedly told there was no room at the inn. Eventually we were able to finagle a table squeezed next to the entryway at Pere Antoine where we enjoyed seafood, a surprisingly flavorful sauce with the traditional red beans and rice, and a high-spirited waitress. Fortified, we parted ways. Who wants to be with their parents (or kids!) on New Year’s Eve?Bourbon Street was everything I expected and more. Sequins sparkled, there was the sound of laughter and music echoing down every side street, and everywhere bright green drinks glowed in oddly shaped containers

We people-watched to our hearts content and had many strange and interesting conversations with revelers of all ages. In all my travels, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it!

Around 11:15 we strolled around the periphery of Jackson Square (which the city had wisely locked up for the night) listening to more street music and daring each other to get our fortunes told (we didn’t). We ended up on the banks of the Mississippi River where we watched the Fleur de Lis drop off the Jax building (disappointing) and the fireworks set off over the water (amazing). It was there that we had our most unusual encounter of the night, when a young man in a red, white, and blue Ugly Sweater Suit (see ) decided to use the mighty Mississippi as his own personal toilet and wanted to make sure that we all understood how symbolically important it was for him to do this. Once everyone had stopped laughing, we wished each other a “Happy New Year” and started back to the Bourbon Hotel. It was definitely a night to remember and I’d highly recommend it to those of you who need to work on character description for a short story or novel or simply have a well-developed sense of adventure. Great start to 2016!

Next Up-2016!

December 27, 2015

This will be my last post of the year. I’m planning to send 2015 out with a bang by welcoming in 2016 from New Orleans, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. Two weeks ago I wrote about the things I was proud of accomplishing this year . Today I’ll reflect on what I hope to do as a writer in the coming year and, perhaps even more importantly, how I plan to do it.

Revamp my website and update my social media profiles

I’ve already scheduled an appointment with a graphic designer and will be meeting with him in mid-January to update the toolbar, the site pages, and the overall look of my website (which is over seven years old!). Once that’s done, I’ll get to work on the content so it reflects what I’m doing professionally these days.

Along with my website, I want to revamp my LinkedIn and Twitter profiles and buff up my blog home page. A fresh look for my online presence will feel as good as having a clean house!

Become a published author

This year, I plan to finish the book I’m coauthoring on college transfer and will hopefully see it published by next December. To do this, I’ll need to write the remaining chapters, have a reader or two look over them and make suggestions, and hire a copyeditor to catch anything we missed. Though it will be a lot of hard work, finishing the book is something I’m really looking forward to doing.

Continue to write for regional publications

This is something I really enjoy so I’ll continue to do it. However, this is the year I will officially give up business writing. I’ve enjoyed the majority of my projects and having the opportunity to promote local businesses, but all good things must come to an end and I’m moving on. On the other hand, after a short hiatus from the newspaper business, I’ve realized that I really do love reporting and that I miss the thrill of discovery and pressure of a deadline that goes along with it. So I’ll be looking for a place to contribute to starting in January 2016.

Improve my writing skills

Like an athlete or a musician warming up every day with stretches or scales, I need to do this to keep my writing sharp and compelling. For me, journaling, timed writing exercises, and signing up for short-term group classes like Writing Aerobics usually does the trick. Another way to do this is to attend talks and readings by authors and poets at my local colleges or bookstores. Of course, my favorite way of increasing my writing skills is to read, read, and then read some more.

Experiment with some new types of writing

I’d like to try to write some personal essays, op-ed pieces, and a short story or two. Perhaps even a novel. For me, anticipation is the greatest thing about the New Year. When you open your eyes on January 1st, you can see this wonderful open slate of 365 days stretching before you. Anything is possible!

A Year in Review

December 15, 2015

Mid-December, when it often seems like no one else is working, is a great time to take stock of the year that is ending and to begin to plan for the upcoming year. Luckily, holiday activities like baking, cleaning, wrapping, and taking long walks to work off all the candy and cookies are perfectly suited to pondering both your past and your future.

Though I frequently felt like I was spending a fair amount of time struggling with various issues in 2015, it turns out that, despite all the things I lost this year, I gained quite a few as well. Some of my accomplishments include:

  • Attending the Tucson Book Festival and spending the weekend rocking out to the Rock Bottom Remainders literary band, listening to my favorite authors talk about writing and their prolific careers, and attending my first teen poetry slam


Marja Mills discusses her book The Mockingbird Next Door at the Tuscon Book Festival.

  • Being brave enough to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and then taking the time to think about what it means in relation to To Kill a Mockingbird and what Lee was sharing with us by finally releasing it
  • Taking my own personal five-day writing retreat on Cape Cod where I camped alone and spent five solitary days doing nothing but reading, writing, and swimming. It was harder than I expected and I even contemplated leaving one day. But I stuck it out and learned a lot about myself in the process, along with regaining some of the confidence and faith in my abilities that I’d lost
  • Reviewing some amazing plays at the Kitchen Theatre Company
  • Having the opportunity to hear, and write about, many fascinating people including Dr. Ben Carson and a WWII veteran who was still waterskiing well into his eighties
  • Participating in several rounds of Writing Aerobics at Writers & Books in Rochester
  • Passing the 280 mark in blog posts written and the 500 mark in LinkedIn connections
  • Getting on Twitter and learning how to Tweet
  • Keeping a travel journal
  • Receiving a publishing contract for the nonfiction book I’m coauthoring with a college admissions consultant, due out in 2016

That’s not bad at all! What are the things you are proud of doing in 2015?

Trust Yourself

December 2, 2015

Sometimes everything you say or do feels lackluster. Over the years I’ve discovered that when you are in this frame of mind doing something creative, even if it has nothing to do with writing, can be just the spark you need to rekindle your prose.

One dreary Wednesday found me in an Ithaca storefront clutching a Rene Magritte print that I bought at Museum of Modern Art at least fifteen years ago. It has been sitting in one of those cardboard tubes silently reproaching me every time I pass it. The reason I bought it in the first place is that it was both unusual and quirky and instantly appealed to me. So why did I refuse to frame it? For lots of reasons. It would be expensive. I wasn’t artistic so the end result was sure to look amateur. Where would I hang it?

Julia Cameron would say that it’s because I was being stingy with myself, denying myself something that would inspire me and make me feel good whenever I walked past it. She would be right. I had some extra cash, an empty wall space in the room where I read that needed filling, and whoever was in the store could help me decide how to present it. The only problem was that the first question Sam asked me was “What are you looking for?” I gazed around the room and saw hundreds of frame samples, all different colors, textures, and widths. Instead of panicking, I took a deep breath, emptied my mind and thought about my picture. One of the reasons that I was drawn to it in the first place is that it shows a neighborhood in shadowy darkness, yet there is lightness too, in the windows, the soft glow of a street lamp, and the sky above is a brilliant blue with fluffy white clouds. To me it represents both the joy and melancholy in all of our lives. That’s what I wanted to think about whenever I looked at it. The colors I chose for the matting and frame should reflect that. Cautiously I began to experiment with different shades of light and dark. After a few failed attempts, I stopped feeling discouraged and began to see my framing project as a challenge. I finally understood that this was something I knew how to approach simply because I was a writer.

When I decide to write an article I begin with the tiny grain of an idea, something that makes me want to delve deeper, to learn more about it. Then I try to find a way to say it, to unearth a universal thread that will bind me and the person who is reading it. I felt the same way about the Magritte. I didn’t want to look at it and think “Oh-that’s a nice picture” and walk away. My goal was to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. Sam and I spent a happy hour talking about what we thought the painting was trying to communicate to us and why each combination we tried did or didn’t work.  As we experimented with different combinations, my confidence grew and I became bolder and more and more aware of what my piece of art meant to me. Finally, the two of us were satisfied that we’d done a fantastic job and I went home poorer, but with a spring in my step. A few weeks later, I returned to the shop and gazed at the large package wrapped in brown paper. What if it wasn’t what I had hoped for? Would it disappoint me? I closed my eyes while Sam took the brown paper off. When I opened them, I gazed with awe at something I had managed to create that will give me pleasure (and confidence in my own abilities) for the rest of my life. And that is priceless!

I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that, as a writer, you will frequently get discouraged and overwhelmed. There will be times when you don’t know where to begin or where you will end up. That’s okay, as long as you never give up. You have the inner capacity to make something beautiful and meaningful out of disparate pieces. All you need is faith in yourself!




November 25, 2015

My apologies for falling off the blog wagon once again. It’s been more a shortage of time than of ideas. I promise I’ll try to do better in December!

A Short Lesson from a Special Pair of Hands

November 6, 2015

As writers we often hear the advice “less is more” or “show don’t tell”. But we have so many thoughts in our brains and so many words to choose from that it can be next to impossible to understand what this is supposed to mean or how to do it well. Ernest Hemingway is usually credited with being the master of the sparse, yet powerful, writing style. His shortest story was reputedly about baby shoes and was only six words long. I have a confession to make here. I don’t really love Hemingway, though I certainly admire his writing skill and work ethic. So I was beginning to despair of ever finding an inspiration for bare bones-style prose when one arrived in the most unlikely of places, a YouTube recording.

A fellow writer told our writing group about one of his favorite songs to listen to when he’s thinking about how to say a lot with only a little. He warned us that, though it was a short piece, it packed an emotional punch. “Grandma’s Hands” was written and sung by the talented Bill Withers. In the short, yet extremely compelling verses, he paints a picture of his elderly grandmother by recalling a few specific things she said to him as a child along with his memories of how her hands looked and what they did for him. By the end of the song, you not only have a vivid picture of the elderly lady in your mind, you also have an understanding of how much she meant to young Billy and how deeply the adult Bill continues to miss her. This to me, is writing at its very best and it’s what I’ll continue to strive for.

Be Glad, Not Mad: How Rude People Can Improve Your Writing!

October 22, 2015

Last week, stiff as a board from writing and interviewing all week, I treated myself to a massage and sauna at one of our local spas. The massage was exactly what I needed, and I was just starting to close my eyes and bask in the dry sauna heat when the door flew open. In strode a women I’ve known peripherally for years. After briskly throwing a ladle of water on the hot coals, releasing a huge cloud of steam over me, she plunked herself down and began to talk. After exhausting the subjects of her health and our kids, I happened to mention that I was co-authoring a book. Naturally, she asked what it was about. When I replied that it was a guide to college transfer, her blunt response was “That sounds boring! Tell me why I would want to read it!”

I’m sure my mouth hung open in disbelief for a moment before I grimly snapped it shut. But then I rose to her challenge. “Did you know that one out of three students will transfer during their college careers?” I asked. “And that many parents today are way more involved in their children’s college careers than our parents were, primarily because the annual tuition cost of college can be as much as a new car!” She nodded and mentioned several young adults she knew who were struggling with college debt. Encouraged, I continued, “So, the first chapters of the book focus on helping families decide if transfer is really the best choice for the student. We interviewed real kids and came up with a bunch of examples, some where the school was definitely a poor fit for them and others where the student would be better off staying there and trying to work out the issues that were making it hard for them to adjust to college. There’s a quiz section too and right now I’m working on interviewing for the last chapters.” I looked at her expectantly, “So did I convince you to read it?”

“Well I don’t know any kids who are transferring so I wouldn’t buy it,” she assured me. “But I’m sure someone will!”

Part of me felt like I should be angry and upset over this encounter. However, the more practical Sue realizes that this was actually an excellent wakeup call. Writing a nonfiction book is a significant accomplishment. But an author’s job doesn’t always conclude with the final paragraph. Sometimes you need to be prepared to educate people about your topic, along with perfecting a 15 second elevator pitch as to why a book about it is guaranteed to be both timely and helpful. I’m glad I learned this lesson sooner, rather than later!


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