Thursday, March 01, 2007

The 'R' word is almost as verboten as the 'I' word

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - When professional writers get together and talk about research, they almost never utter the word, research.

That's because the word is so loaded with all kinds of other associations (people in lab coats squinting into microscopes, someone sitting in a huge pile of books and reports...) that it's inaccurate.

Certainly, there are times when journalists - and freelance writers - do research that requires stacks of books and reports, but most of what writers do is simply gather information in less formal ways. Writers spend much of time on the Internet, yakking on the telephone and, if possible, actually getting out and talking directly to people.

In my magazine writing class, I can see the eyes glazing over when I say "You need to do more research," so if catch the "R" word before it escapes, I revise it to say "You need to talk with more people and find some documents..."

If "research" is an inaccurate word for what writers do, so is the word "interview."

Interviews usually conjure up visions of boom microphones and the glare of stage lights - not what 99 percent of interviews really are: brief conversations.

When I call someone - or more frequently email - to ask a few questions, I say just that. "Can I ask you a few questions about...?" Or sometime I will say "Can we chat about...?"

It less threatening and very few people will say they don't have time to 'chat."

Consider the likely reactions to these inquiries:

Do you have time for me to interview you for the research I'm doing?

Do you have time to chat about a story I'm working on?