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The Writing Life: Is Technology an Advance or a Hindrance?

by Sherri Burr


In our advanced technological age, we are bombarded by the latest gadgets for everything from appliances to voice recording apps, all claiming to make lives more efficient. But do they?

This question occurred to me after two home appliances broke, and I replaced them with “high efficiency” models. The new washing machine included a sensing device that calculated the amount of water it needed. Since it had a glass top, I watched the machine twist the load back and forth before it turned on the water. Although I had piled in clothes to reach the top of the tub, the machine added water to fill only about a quarter of its capacity. Eighty minutes later a load was finished, yet several items had dry spots. A load of whites took two hours, and I tricked the machine into filling up the tub by first bleaching clothes in a bucket, which made them heavier.

My initial reaction was astonishment. The machine took nearly three times as long to wash loads, and it didn’t get them as clean as my 1989 Kenmore machine that went to washing machine heaven after three attempts to fix it failed to produce a functional apparatus. I questioned the term “high efficiency,” and realized it only referred to the machine’s miserly water use. When it came to electricity, my bill would go up because it now took nearly all day to wash four loads of laundry, instead of two hours. When I went back to the store, the clerk questioned whether I had loaded the machine correctly. I thought, given the cost, the machine should have loaded itself. I requested the store pick up the machine and return my money before purchasing a non-high efficiency machine that allowed me to set water levels, and clean loads in half the time.

I share this story to challenge writers to question whether the new technology in their lives is an advance or a hindrance. Are we better off interviewing subjects and typing our notes on our laptop at the same time? Are we better off interviewing subjects and exclusively using our iPhone’s or iPad’s Siri to record the notes?

As someone who has used technology to her detriment in interviews, I submit that both questions must be answered with “no.” I interviewed someone and placed my “iDevice” on the table to record the conversation, while I actively listened and took notes on a paper pad. Thank goodness I did the latter because Siri recorded gibberish. I learned the hard way with voice-recognition software that if it doesn’t recognize the nuances in a person’s speech patterns, it may not accurately translate the person’s sentences.

The other problem I’ve found with recording devices is that subjects are intimidated by them. After getting nothing from a former bachelor from the television show The Bachelor, I put away the recording device. He immediately started talking. Since I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation, I just actively listened. The minute we finished, I ran to my car and wrote everything I could remember. I went to bed that night thinking I had nonsense, but awoke the next morning with a complete story organized in my head. My subconscious had sorted out the text while I slept.

In a law class simulation, I asked four students to role play as clients and lawyers. In the first group, the lawyer wanted to use his iPad to take notes. As the interview progressed, he didn’t use his iPad once. Rather, he focused on the client’s pre-interview sheet to ask questions. Because he was reading from the sheet, he didn’t observe his client. In the second demonstration, the law student used no electronic device and, even though he had the pre-interview sheet, he focused on talking and listening to the client. The second interview was more effective.

My final technology concern focuses on studies demonstrating that students who type their lecture notes on computers produce more complete notes but do not processes the material as well and do worse on exams. Other studies have proven that reading material on electronic devices leads to less recall of the material learned.

Thus, before you ditch your paper products in favor of electronics, think about whether they will advance or hinder the cause of obtaining effective interviews and learning material. Those who feel they are listened to will tell more. Look directly at interviewees, and actively tune your ears to capture all that you can from them.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

5 Steps to Master the Art of Interviewing

by Sherri Burr

SherriBurrWriters interview. It is one of our most important research techniques. We interview for background information about characters or settings, to obtain quotes to enhance our stories, and for profiles. Use the following five steps to make your interviews successful.

Set up Interviews

How do you contact the person? One option is to write a personalized letter or email. Mention what you admire about his or her work, and why he or she will benefit from talking to you. Although busy, people will take time if presented an opportunity to offer wisdom to benefit others. Mention your credentials, including people you have interviewed before, to give the impression that you are a professional.

If you’re lucky, you’ll run into the person on the street or at a conference. This happens a lot at big events. At the 2008 Book Expo America, I happened upon a room with Magic Johnson and Alec Baldwin. At Taos Talking Pictures, I was interviewing a young actress and noticed that Julia Roberts was standing to my side, and behind the young actress was Susan Sarandon.

With these chance encounters, you have to immediately ask for interviews. This can be intimidating when the person is famous. While I did ask Johnson to speak at a University of New Mexico event and Baldwin for an interview, I was rendered speechless by Roberts and Sarandon. So I wrote a column about standing in the presence of greatness and only knowing their mystery.

If the person says yes, you must follow up immediately. Set a specific time and place. Do not let months go by, as I did, contemplating that Alec Baldwin gave me his cell phone number. If you wait, you’ll find, as I did, that he does not return your messages.

Prepare for Interviews

Obtain background information by Google-ing the person. Print and highlight the most relevant points. Write sample questions, but do not stick to a script. Have a sense of what you most want from the interview. If interviewing writers, ask about their favorite authors and what they learned from their craft. Ask how they deal with rejection. Do they have mentors?

If just venturing into interviews, watch a pro like Oprah. She handled with aplomb, Rielle Hunter, the lover of former presidential candidate John Edwards, and Sarah Duchess of York after she was caught on tape trying to sell access to her ex-spouse, Prince Andrew.

Conduct Interviews

Interviews can take place in person, on the telephone or by email or text. The face-to-face encounter is the best because you can observe body language. With the telephone, you will at least have the tone of voice. With email or text, you just have words. Barbara Walters asked Shirley MacLaine if she liked her brother Warren Beatty. MacLaine answered “yes” while shaking her head “no.” If there is incongruence between body language and the words, the former is the most accurate. With an email interview, that difference would have been missed.

That said, sometimes you take what you can get. I secured only a telephone interview with MacLaine. It lasted seven minutes and I printed every word in my Entertainment Law book.

For face-to-face interviews, arrive early to set up. Bring your writer’s notepad, a pen, and a tape recorder if you desire. Do not rely on the tape recorder as your only recording device. Technology can fail. For a television interview with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a student intern forgot to turn on the audio, resulting in a useless product with no opportunity for a second chance.

For a print interview, the best recording device is pen and paper. It gives the interviewee some comfort watching you write down her words. But even that can be intimidating. While interviewing The Bachelor’s Bob Guiney (the third bachelor), he clammed up, so I tucked away my writer’s pad. Then he spilled his guts about how ABC was mistreating him. Afterwards, I rushed to my car and wrote it down. I went to bed thinking I had mush but woke up with a complete profile article in my head. If you do employ a recording device, keep it going even after the interview is finished as you sometimes get gems at the end.

Write the Results Immediately

Sometimes dreams resolve problems. When this happens, immediately write the results in your journal or type them on your computer. It’s tempting to think the article will remain in your head for hours or days. Not so. A fully realized piece can just vanish. Thus, don’t wait.

Share the Results with the Subject

Email the results with a deadline that tells the person that this is what you plan to print and they have days (or a week) to make changes. If you do not hear back within the deadline, assume the story is okay to run. Sometimes a subject will want to remove a line or change things. I usually oblige them unless it’s something I want to keep. Character actor Morgan Woodward described the prison guard he played in Cool Hand Luke as “a walking Mephistopheles.” I loved the line and asked to keep it. He relented.

A Short and Happy GuideSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has authored or co-authored twenty books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well Being (West Academic, 2014).

This article was originally published as “Mastering the Art of Interviewing” in the September 2010 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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