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How to conduct an interview: 10 key decisions

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, work on February 4, 2016 at 3:23 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A

For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. I interviewed 104 men, women and teens from 29 states.

For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.

But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.

I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.

I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.

Why not use them all?

Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.

Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.

In my 30 years as a journalist and author of two non-fiction books of national reporting, I’ve done hundreds, probably thousands, of interviews. I really enjoy them!

These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit. READ a lot. Be smart before you pick up the phone or send that email!

Do your damn homework!

Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.

Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!

Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.

I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.

It means paying careful attention.

 

First decision:

Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?

Second decision:

Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?

In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress.  grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.

Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes! Don’t forget “vox pops” — interviews with people in the street and those who have turned out for an event

Third decision:

What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?

Fourth decision:

Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid, our trusty translator, Dixie, in the background

Fifth decision:

Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.

Sixth decision:

What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Will you share your secrets with me?

Seventh decision:

Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.

Eighth decision:

How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)

Ninth decision:

When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”

Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.

Tenth decision:

The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.

 

 Still need some help?

I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.

What lessons did your first boss teach you?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, work on January 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

The New York Times newsroom...since 1990, I've written more than 100 stories for them

The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

So, what are you reading these days?

In behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on December 30, 2015 at 2:13 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Check out this great post, by a Halifax librarian, about the 164 (!) books she read this year.

I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.

There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.

But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.

I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.

I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.

Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.

I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.

I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.

I also (always a question posed with trepidation) asked if they sell my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and they used to but did not re-stock it.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

Ouch!

The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.

I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.

(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:

— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real

— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)

— to better understand history

— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative

— to be inspired by lovely language

— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography

I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.

I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.

Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!

Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.

When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.

Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.

North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person

I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.

Isn't this cover gorgeous?

Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker

I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.

What were your favorite recent reads, old or new?

 

 

Who believed in you?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, family, life, love, parenting, work on December 8, 2015 at 1:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

caitlin painting

Me, creating…

The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.

He only graduated last May.

Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.

His email thanked me for my belief in him.

We had had a long and deeply personal conversation  during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.

It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.

While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.

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I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!

Ana

My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.

A friend of my father

He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.

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My second book, published in 2011

My editors

I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.

Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.

Philippe Viannay

Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.

A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.

I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

My clients

I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.

The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.

My fencing coach

How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!

I  had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.

I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of  — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.

It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.

His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004

My first agent

I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)

I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.

And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.

He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.

M

She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

Jose

My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.

His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.

 

Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?

What did they say or do that kept you going?

 

What does community mean to you?

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, education, entertainment, immigration, life, the military, travel, U.S., urban life on October 1, 2015 at 3:28 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Is it your town?

City?

Neighborhood?

Your running/cycling/yoga pals?

Your place of worship?

Maybe all of these…

I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.

It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.

For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.

Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.

Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.

It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.

On a good day.

Our view of the Hudson River

Our view of the Hudson River

I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:

a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”

a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.

several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.

My desk -- Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

My desk — Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.

— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.

Which communities do you belong to and why?

How do they nurture you — and vice versa?

My writing workshops Oct. 17 and 18, near New York City

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on September 25, 2015 at 12:10 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Some of you are already writing non-fiction, memoir, journalism, essays.

Some of you would like to!

Some of you would like to find newer, larger, better-paying outlets for your work.

Some of you would like to publish for the first time.

Maybe you’d like to write a non-fiction book, but where to start?

I can help.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

As the author of two well-reviewed works of nationally reported non-fiction, Blown Away: American Women and Guns and Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, winner of a Canadian National Magazine award and five fellowships, I bring decades of experience as a writer for the most demanding editors.  I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 and for others like More, Glamour, Smithsonian and Readers Digest.

My website is here.

I’ve taught writing at Pace University, Pratt Institute, New York University, Concordia University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center — and have individually coached many writers, from New Zealand, Singapore and Australia to England and Germany.

My students’ work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan.com and others.

Here’s one of them, a young female cyclist traveling the world collecting stories of climate change.

malled cover LOW

On Saturday October 17, and Sunday October 18, I’m holding a one-day writing workshop, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at my home in Tarrytown New York, a town named one of the U.S’s 10 prettiest.

It’s easily accessible from Grand Central Station, a 38 minute train ride north of Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, (round trip ticket, $20.50), plus a five-minute $5 cab ride to my home — we have an elevator so there’s no issue with mobility or access.

Coming by car? Tarrytown is right at the Tappan Zee bridge, easy to reach from New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate.

Each workshop is practical, tips-filled, down-to-earth and allows plenty of time for your individual questions. The price includes lunch and non-alcoholic beverages.

$200.00; payable in advance via PayPal only.

Space is limited to only nine students. Sign up soon!

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Freelance Boot Camp — October 16

What you’ll learn:

  • How to come up with salable, timely story ideas
  • How to decide the best outlets for your ideas: radio, digital, print, magazines (trade or consumer), newspapers, foreign press
  • How to pitch effectively
  • Setting fees and negotiating
  • When to accept a lower fee — or work without payment

Writing and Selling a Work of Non-Fiction — October 17

What you’ll learn:

  • Where to find ideas for a salable book
  • The question of timing
  • What’s a platform? Why you need one and how to develop it
  • The power of voice
  • Why a book proposal is essential and what it takes
  • Finding an agent
  • Writing, revising, promoting a published book

Questions or concerns? Email me soon at learntowritebetter@gmailcom.

You’ll find testimonials about my teaching here, as well as details on my individual coaching, (via phone or Skype), and webinars, (by phone or Skype), offered one-on-one at your convenience.

Want to register now?

Terrific!

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and I’ll send you an invoice and share travel details.

The most important thing school can teach you is…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?

Why?

Starting college? A few tips…

In behavior, domestic life, education, life, parenting on August 24, 2015 at 12:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

Few moments are as exciting, and intimidating, as your first few weeks of college or university. Some students have flown thousands of miles, leaving far behind family, friends, pets and everyone they’ve known, now lost in a sea of new faces and new expectations.

I attended the University of Toronto, traveling a quick, direct 30 minutes from my parents’ home by city bus to campus. The adjustment was mostly intellectual, not physical.

But most of my pals, headed to different schools? And those three super-encouraging high school English teachers who insisted I become a writer?

Gone!

Instead, I had an English lit professor who wore a bowtie and a cape and who tossed off quotations in multiple languages. Terrifying!

I did like that he addressed us as Miss Kelly or Mr. Smith. It gave our class a gravitas that signaled clearly we had entered a new world. It was time to grow up.

When I taught freshman last year at an expensive private school in Brooklyn last year, it was obvious that some students had no idea what it meant to adjust to a more adult style of behavior: wandering into my class 30 minutes late without apology, blowing off clearly stated deadlines, sitting silent in a class of only six people.

A few tips:

Be careful with alcohol

Be careful with alcohol

Stay sober

If you think college life = getting drunk or high every day, (as, sadly, it does for some), stay home and save yourself, or your poor parents, a ton of wasted money. There’s no way you’ll be able to pay close attention in class, participate effectively or do decent work if the room is spinning or you’re bowing, once more, to the porcelain god.

If you find yourself in this pattern, head to the college counseling service for help.

Get enough sleep

A minimum of seven hours.

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Eat healthy food

Protein, vegetables, fruit. Drink plenty of water. Carbs are quick, cheap and portable, (e.g. pizza, cookies, chips), but they don’t qualify as a smart steady diet.

Get to know a few of your professors beyond the classroom

Some profs are in a rush to flee after class; many of them are adjuncts, poorly-paid, with no office space and juggling multiple jobs on multiple campuses. Nonetheless, try to find a few whose classes you really enjoy and, if you’ve got time and interest, ask for their class-related advice and insights. Genuine interest in and enthusiasm for a teacher’s intellectual passion is something we enjoy and love to see.

High school, and its expectations, is another universe — don’t expect professors to cut you slack now

The greatest culture shock I saw in some of my students was their disregard for the serious business of higher education. If you’re paying $20,000 to $60,000, (yes, really), for a year of schooling, show up! Do the work on time. No professor wants to hear endless excuses why you can’t.

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

Meet your deadlines

Yes, you’ll get sick. Yes, someone in your family might die. Other than those reasons, get your work done and submitted on time. College is proxy for real life, the world in which your boss(es), every single day, will expect competence.

Develop good habits now and the adjustment won’t come as such a shock after you graduate.

Professors are human

Yes, really.

They may seem scary, or weird, or both. But they/we are human beings, juggling many responsibilities, and your urgent email at 2 a.m. is not going to get read or responded to. We’re asleep! (Or wish we were.)

Remember that your professors are people, too. Smile. Say good morning or good afternoon. If you actually enjoyed a class or lecture or presentation, tell us. Like everyone else, we like to hear good news.

Cute -- but not in my classroom!

Cute — but not in my classroom!

Politeness will go a long way to ease your transition

It’s hard to imagine for some people, but saying please and thank you, arriving to class more than 30 seconds before it starts, never arriving late, (or apologizing sincerely if you do), will make a real difference in how staff, administrators and teachers see and think of you. You’re not just the sum of your GPA.

Say please and thank you to everyone — from department secretaries to the janitors keeping the classrooms and cafeteria clean to dishwashers, groundskeepers, security staff. You never know when you might need their help. And their skill and energy are just as essential to your safe, clean, enjoyable college experience as your teachers or coaches.

Take advantage of every student group that can build your social and technical skills

Every school offers a wide range of opportunities to learn new and cool out-of-classroom skills, meet a more diverse group than those sharing your classes and, for those who want it, to develop your leadership abilities. The best experiences I had at school were working on the weekly campus newspaper, (which quickly gave me clips of published work which led to national magazine assignments while I was still an undergrad), and leading an exchange program between U of Toronto and UNC/Chapel Hill, a week spent on each campus. I still recall to this day some of what I saw and heard there, long after I’ve forgotten much class content.

IMG_0414

Be sexually smart

Whoever you decide to have sexual relations with, protect your health. Know where and how to readily access affordable birth control and the morning-after pill or, worst case, abortion facilities. Don’t confuse the heady thrill of feeling attractive with thinking someone loves, or even likes, you. Do not drink or drug yourself past the point of informed mutual consent.

If you have been sexually assaulted, please report it, quickly, to campus and city/town police.

Treasure new friends

My best friend from freshman English class, decades later, traveled across the continent for my first wedding (and my second!) We met when we eye-rolled at one another in class. My life has been immeasurably richer for knowing her, and for our long, strong friendship.

We're not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Ask for help

You’ll hit roadblocks — emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical. But you’re also surrounded now by hundreds of people with wisdom, connections, contacts, experience and compassion. Whatever issue you’re struggling with, let someone know and don’t give up if you don’t get the response you need. Tell someone else.

Find someone to help you.

One of my students had a very difficult time and I was honored that she trusted me enough to share that with me so I knew what was going on and tried to do what little I could to help. Even after she dropped out of the program, she later let me know that my concern for her had made a difference.

Here are even more great tips from current American college students, published in The New York Times; I like all of them except for one — do not, do not, show up to class wearing pajamas. Seriously.

Have a great year!

The allure of learning something difficult

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, travel on August 10, 2015 at 12:16 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means

The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

Time to up your writing or blogging game?

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, work on July 29, 2015 at 12:53 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

As some of you already know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with clients ranging from non-profits like WaterAid to journalism for The New York Times and many others. I’ve been writing for national magazines and newspapers since my days at the University of Toronto, was a staff reporter for three major daily newspapers, a magazine editor and now work from home for a wide range of clients.

Here’s my website, with many published articles, including the one which won me a National Magazine Award.

Whether it’s a personal essay, a reported story, an investigative piece — or a blog post — I know how to do it and can help you do it better!

The basics of great writing never change: clear thinking produces clear writing. But sometimes you need a smart and helpful editor to talk it through. That’s me.

I love teaching and coaching and take great pride and pleasure in my students’ progress.

This year I taught freshman writing at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, and also taught blogging — where my students’ blogs helped them win prestigious internships and polish their writing and social media skills.

I also teach writing at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan, and recently helped six designers better understand the world of publishing and social media in my class “How to Catch an Editor’s Eye”. My classes there start again September 23.

Time to make some money with your writing?

Time to make some money with your writing?

As someone who’s been writing for demanding editors in Canada, Britain and the U.S. for decades — also author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books — I’m able to help newer or less-experienced writers refine their pitches, conceptualize ideas for a book proposal, think through your next steps in building a writing career.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

As I did for this piece, I can also read a first draft of your story, offering many helpful, constructive editing comments, (tone, reporting, structure, etc.)

I met its young author at a conference in New York a few years ago and, since we’re both from Toronto, stayed in sporadic touch. She sent me a draft of her challenging and complex piece — about a murder by a former high school classmate of hers — and I helped her with it.

It’s since gotten a lot of attention, including from the Washington Post, Jezebel and others.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

I often coach fellow writers — in person, by phone or Skype — as I recently did for one English journalist when I was on holiday in Dublin; I charge $225/hour (U.S.), payable in advance by Paypal to focus on anything you’d like advice on: blogging, journalism, online writing, non-fiction writing, pitching…

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My webinars, which I can do by Skype or phone, are $150 for 90 minutes and I schedule them according to your convenience one-on-one — you’ll find testimonials from satisfied students from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the U.S., Canada and England.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid

Interested?

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and let’s get started!

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