Tips for writing features #3: Anyone know anyone…?

tips for finding case studiesAs a features writer, I’ve spent a lot of my time asking variations on this question: “Does anyone know anyone who [insert wears blue nail polish/howls at the moon/is willing to get naked for a readership of 500,000+/had a baby early/had a baby late/had a baby on their own/had a baby with another mum/etcetera etcetera etcetera]. Most features in the lifestyle category require at least one case study. Preferably three. Or, five. Or, gloriously for one particular story, nine.
When I first started out as a journo, case studies were a nightmare. Imagine yourself sitting in an office, with a phone and a computer that’s not connected to anything but the wall. The internet is ‘happening’, but not in your sphere, not yet. And you need to find someone over the age of 40 who had a baby on their own (just as an example). Your social network has an average age of 22 and is spectacularly free of mothers of any age. Where do you start?

By ringing everyone you know, of course. Which is why my friends learned to ‘accidentally disconnect’ the phone every time they heard my voice on the end of it. Particularly once I started at CLEO and they discovered that many of my queries involved either nudity or embarrassing public disclosure or both. It becomes a measure of one’s charm, tenacity and sheer bloody desperation that some of those stories come together.

Most jobs involved phone call after phone call, and arm twisting, and convincing people that a ‘really nice professional photo’ was reason enough to get involved. Ingenuity helps. When in need of naked people, start with the professionally body conscious: strippers, life models, body builders. In need of brides with unworn wedding dresses? Thumb through the classifieds – and then be prepared for some awkward ‘Hi, I’m from CLEO, how do you feel about sharing your heartbreak?’ conversations. Looking for first home buyers? Ring a real estate agent.

Of course, the internet changed everything. Suddenly, we could advertise on a magazine’s website for people to contact us to get involved (bliss). There’s an association for everything and every association has a website with contact details. And now there’s social media, where one ‘tweet’ can garner a dozen responses – perhaps not definitive case studies, but all-important leads. (If you’re needing a case study, I recommend you check out sourcebottle.com.au – dream service.)

One thing I learned through those earlier, desperate years, however, is this: not every case study is the right case study, and it’s really, really difficult to explain to someone who’s keen to be involved that they’re not ‘right’. The reasons they might not be right vary wildly, but mostly it just comes down to the angle of their story not being strong enough. Yes, you need to fill a hole in your story with ‘real person quotes’, but if those quotes don’t advance the story there’s no point. On one memorable occasion, I tracked down 34 different case studies before finding the ‘nine’ (yep, that’s the story) that the editor was happy with. Often, it’s not until after you’ve done the interview that you realise it won’t work out. Which makes it even worse.

So what’s a girl to do in a situation like this? The same thing that writers have done since time immemorial. Blame the editor.

If you’d like more tips about case studies, interviews or the other tricks of successful freelance writing, check out my ebook here.