Monday, September 13, 2010


When you give an interview, can you ask to see the piece before it comes out? ELLEN WHYTE explains why the answer is generally a resounding “No!”

I INTERVIEW AND QUOTE about 100 people every year for newspaper and magazine articles. As I’ve been doing this for some 14 years, we’re talking about some 1,400 people interviewed so far.

The number one issue that crops up again and again is when interview subjects ask to see the piece before it’s printed. Some want to approve what picture is published, too. As a rule of thumb the answer is, “No. You can see it when it’s out.”

The only people who get to interfere in the business of writing, editing and layout are Friends of the Boss. I say interfere because it takes professional writing, editing, and graphic/artist skills to create a quality product.

As few people have all those skills, Friends of the Boss have a distressing tendency to mess up the prose and the layout. Not only do they reduce the quality of the final product, but they also waste everyone’s time and drive the entire team to screaming point with the endless meetings their meddlesome micromanagement entails.

The other way to get total control of the end product is to place an ad. Placing a one-page ad in the newspaper costs roughly RM35,000. Placing a one-page ad in a glossy magazine is about RM6,000. That’s just for booking the space. On top of that, you have to write the text or hire a writer, and pay for professional editing.

Then there’s the picture. A good quality picture means hiring a make-up artist, a stylist, lighting equipment and a photographer. Then you have to organise the location and conduct a photo shoot, post-production work and so on.

Add it all up and you can see why getting free coverage is a sweet deal!

So for those people who can’t afford to pay for advertising, and who are not chums with the boss, there is this standard answer: the only people who get to see and change the article before it’s printed are the people who pay for it to be produced. It’s their property. He who pays the piper gets to call the tune.

If you give an interview, you do so because it’s part of your job, because it’s fun, or because you want free publicity.

As such you have to trust the writer to get it all down, and present the view you hope for. To do that, don’t say anything you don’t want to appear in print. If you say something you know you shouldn’t have, you have only yourself to blame if you’re quoted.

The media in Malaysia tend to be kind. As a rule of thumb, most of us will ignore the bits that we know you don’t really mean, and we’ll even give your statements a bit of a polish so that you sound better.

We change your “Well, uhm, you know, I kinda like that pasta stuff with the hot chillies ... uhm, that sort of uhmmm, you know, hooker thing? Uhm, oh yeah, pasta puttanesca. You know, because it’s sort of spicy? It’s got a kick. And I like it with salad ... especially sour sort of salad. That Baltic salami stuff. Erm no, balsa, eh, balsamic! That stuff that makes your mouth run, you know?” into “My favourite is Pasta Puttanesca, a pasta made with hot chillies. It’s got a real kick to it. I pair it with salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette because the sour dressing complements the spicy pasta.”

If you’re someone who doesn’t like the idea of leaving yourself in the hands of others, you can try to see if the writer will go for an email interview. This means you have some time to polish your answers, and with the cut-and-paste you won’t be misquoted.

However, giving written answers can present problems. Unless you’re a pro, you won’t come across the same way when writing as you do in person. Even really sparkly people can be horribly dull over email. Plus, during the give and take of an interview you have a chance to discover the general angle of the piece as well as the intended audience, and then you can hone your answers so that you sound really good.

Finally, it’s surprising how many people answer the question they think they are asked, not the question that is actually asked. If we ask you for your top tip on how to save money at Christmas, don’t tell us you think spending a little extra is fun. It’s not what we’re looking for. If we ask you about your favourite meal, don’t tell us about your favourite restaurant: talk about the food you love!

As writers know that email approaches often don’t work out, we always ask several people for quotes at the same time. If all the people we approach give great answers, we feel lucky and quote the lot.

If we get answers that sound stiff, unintelligible, too long, too short or are just not quite right for the piece, we may call you to talk to you again, but with deadlines and all, it’s more common to drop bits that don’t work and move on.

Remember, we’re the ones giving you an opportunity for free publicity, so we don’t feel obliged to bend over backwards to make sure you benefit. There’s always someone else out there who’s dying to take the opportunity.

Having said all that, I do make two exceptions to the ‘No Previews’ rule. If I get a legal or medical opinion, I double-check the quote with the lawyer or doctor, and give a note to my client that the exact wording of these particular sentences has been checked for accuracy.

Mind you, I check the actual quote to be attributed; I don’t show the doctor or lawyer the whole piece. I reserve the right to include general information they don’t like, or quote other people in the piece who have a different opinion.

Even if I check the exact working of a quote, this does not guarantee that every quote is published. When four people interviewed say the same thing, only one gets quoted. Also, sometimes an editor will take out quotes (usually because the piece is too long) or even whole paragraphs (especially if they get an extra ad!).

Writers know that their work seldom appears exactly as they wrote it. This is a good thing because it’s practically impossible to write a piece and edit it for grammar errors and style yourself afterwards. If you’re lucky, someone else tidies up your grammar, gives it a bit of polishing, and doesn’t bother you with the details before sending it off to be laid out and printed. This is known as the easy life.

Other times, we write a piece, discuss it with an editor, rewrite bits of it, add bits in, take bits out, and then discuss it again, possibly with someone else present too, and make more changes. This is a painful process that has everyone tearing their hair out. And frankly, the fewer people making changes and needing to give approval for the final product, the better for everyone.

That’s another reason why we don’t want to show you our stuff before it’s out. So don’t ask!

ELLEN WHYTE is the author of Katz Tales: Living Under The Velvet Paw and Logomania: Where Common Phrases Come From and How to Use Them.

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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