Tips for writing features #9: Case studies will always surprise you

tips for writing features #9I’m on a bit of a roll with writing posts this week. Apologies to those who are looking for Alla Hoo Hoo or updates on my garden, but I find with (almost) daily blogging that you can only write what you can write. I’ve got a lot of work on at present, across three different forms of media, so writing is on my mind.

Which brings me to this post about case studies. I’ve spent much of my week looking for ‘real people’ for various things. I love the term ‘real people’. Like celebrities aren’t people. Or real. Which, I guess, in a way they’re not. I’ve written before about finding ‘real people’, so this post will not go into the trials and tribulations of life pre-internet (“does anyone know anyone…?”), nor how much I love Twitter for its instant gratification approach to rustling up case studies. Instead, I want to focus on the ‘surprise’ factor of case studies.

When I worked at CLEO in the late 90s, we were all about the case study. All magazines were. It was new and exciting stuff to feature ‘real people’ in those days. Prior to that, mags had been full of stories by staff writers featuring ‘my friend Alice’. No identifying details, no photographs. Suddenly, it was all about pics. Two of my first assignments when I joined the team were to find eight women of all shapes and sizes to pose nude, followed by ten men of all shapes and, er, sizes to pose nude. My friends started to avoid my calls after those two.

It always surprised me what people were willing to share with the hundreds of thousands of readers of a magazine. Why their wedding dresses hung, unworn and forlorn, in their wardrobes. How many times a week (or even day) they had sex. What they really thought about their partner’s dress sense – and what they’d prefer he or she wear. How their mothers made them fat/thin/happy/unhappy/mad. Where they thought the clitoris was (not always where one might expect). For every idea we came up with in a features meeting, there’d be (eventually, after a lot of stress) at least three people willing to share their stories.

Often I’d be asked ‘do you make that stuff up?’ My response? “I couldn’t if I tried.” The thing that always amazes me about case studies is how incredibly interesting people are once you start talking to them. Everyone has a story and I feel so privileged to be able to ask them all about it, even if it’s only a tiny part of their lives that my feature is focusing on.

I also learned early on what a responsibility it is. To listen hard. To question the details. To get it right. And to be aware, even if they’re not, that words take on extra weight when they’re printed and published.

So, tips for interviewing ‘real people’.

*Firstly, get the names right. It’s the one thing they’ll never forgive you for getting wrong.

*Be prepared to have a ‘chat’ to begin. Talk about the weather. Kids. Dogs. Whatever works. You need to establish some kind of connection before you hit them with questions about their sex life/birth story/shoe size.

*Have a list of questions ready to go, but be prepared to wander down a few side roads to get the best story possible – so often the crux of a case study has come from an aside or from a little throwaway remark right at the end of an interview.

*Sometimes you’ll need to ask the same question two or three different ways to elicit the response you want. And be prepared to discover that the response you thought you wanted may not be the best response on the day.

*Know when to stop. Sometimes, particularly if the subject is intense, it can feel awkward to extricate yourself from the conversation. Be gentle, professional and firm. This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but as someone who always wants to know more and has to stop herself asking people round for coffee, it’s a lesson learned the hard way.

So (and here I am being gentle, professional and firm) that’s it. Any questions?

Like to know more about freelancing? You’ll find heaps of great tips and tricks in my ebook Get Paid To Write: The secrets of freelance writing success.