9 Things That Drive Writers Bonkers When Interviewing Sources

Conducting interviews from the carpool line. Now that’s multitasking!

Since my daughter will be starting school in September (for the first time – cue the tears!) and I’ll actually have time to work, I’ve been taking on more assignments. And more assignments means more interviews.

This past week, for instance, I’ve done 7, which is the most I’ve ever done in that short a stretch of time. And since it’s been 6 months since I last interviewed someone for an article, this experience has made me realize exactly how much interviewing is… not my favorite thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy talking to these people – there’s so much to learn from them, they’re so passionate about what they do (and that passion really does rub off), they’re loads of fun to talk to, and I’ve kept in touch with all of them.

But you know how there are things about people, even the ones you love the most, that drive you crazy? Sources are no different.

Interestingly, my jumping into the deep end of the interview pool coincided with a game Linda Formichelli of The Renegade Writer recently ran on Twitter. Using the hashtag #sourcefromhellin5words, players could share their biggest pet peeves when it comes to interviewing sources.

I’m not sure how many (if any) of the responses are still on Twitter as I heard that the platform doesn’t hang on to hashtagged tweets for long, but Linda pulled out some doozies, as did ProfNet, if you care to take a look.

To make a long story even longer, I was subjected to some of them this past week. As well as ones that didn’t make the list.

Here are a few of the things that drive me nuts when dealing with sources.


“Can you send me the article so I can approve it before it’s published?”

Are you my editor?


Then, no, you may not approve the article before it goes to print. There are both legal and logistical reasons for that.

You can ask to review any quotes of yours that made it into the article to ensure that it says what you wanted to say, but that’s about it. I record the interview (once I’ve obtained your permission to do so, that is) and take notes as we talk, so the likelihood of my popping in inaccurate quotes is as close to zero as I can get.

Is the article I’m working on an advertorial that you’re paying the publication to print?


Then, no, you may not approve the article before it goes to print.

An advertorial is what happens when an ad and an article have a baby. You pay the publication to print this article that is essentially a long-winded advertisement for you. In which case, you want to present yourself in the best light possible, so, yes, you do get to check everything over and give it the OK before it gets published. That’s what you paid for, after all.

But if you’re not paying to have this article placed in the magazine/newspaper or on the website/blog, then you do not get approval privileges.


“By the way, this is off the record.”

If you say something’s off the record, I won’t publish it. That’s just how I operate. But telling me something and then saying (or prefacing it with) “this is off the record” is a huge waste of time for the both of us.

The sole reason I’m speaking to you is to collect information from you to use in the piece. Yet you’ve just taken the time to tell me about something I can’t include in the article.

It’s usually the best part of the interview that’s “off the record” too. That bit I really, really want to use. But can’t. Because you told me not to and I’m the kind of person who’s going to honor your request.

So now I’m just disappointed because you used that time I could have been eating lunch or taking a shower or playing with my daughter or walking my dog or working on another project to tell me something that would make an incredible quote, but I can’t include it because it’s “off the record.”

If you don’t want it to be included in the article, just don’t mention it.


“You can just find it on my website.”

I ask you a question and in lieu of an answer, you tell me to look it up on your website. A couple things wrong with this.

  1. If I can just look everything up on your website, then what the hell am I talking to you for? I want stuff that’s not on your website, and that’s why we’re here together.
  2. I can’t just quote your website. That’s not how journalism works. I need to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. And, in this case, you’re the horse.
  3. I’m not looking for a canned response from your website. I need to convey your passion and personality plus the information readers are looking for in this article. And I need to include stuff that’s not already out there for the world to see so that people have an incentive to, you know, read the piece. Otherwise the article might as well just read “See [your name]’s website. The end.”
  4. I’m a reporter. I know what I can find on your site because I already found it. I also checked out all your social media profiles and Googled the shit out of you. But I still contacted you to chat because I want more.

Telling me to read your book is just as bad – probably even worse. Ain’t nobody got time for that. And, frankly, I’m not getting paid enough to justify my taking the time to read your book just to write the article.

Sorry, you’ll just have to talk to me.


“Let’s do 10 o’clock.”

This is an actual response I got from a source when I asked what time would work for him. He sent this at 5pm.

So I called his landline at 10 pm. And again at 10:05. And his cell phone at 10:15. And again the cell phone at 10:20. Voicemail every time.

Then I sent him an email to let him know I tried to get in touch with him and asked if we were still on for the interview. At 10:45, I tried both numbers again. When the clock struck 11 and there’d been no email or call back, I decided to call it a night.

The next morning at 8, I had a new email. The source meant 10 am (as in two hours from the time I received that very email, and not five hours after I received the “Let’s do 10” email).

Would it have killed him to have added “tomorrow morning” or even just “am” to the end of his original email?

And please, for the love of all that’s holy, please let me know what time zone you’re in. “10 pm” to me means 10 o’clock at night, Eastern Standard Time. Depending on where you’re located, that could be anywhere from 1 to 17 or more hours’ difference from 10 pm your time.

Just the other day, I told a source I was only available from 1:30-3:30 EST. She told me 3 would be perfect. Turns out, she was on Central Standard Time and wouldn’t be available for another hour. Which was exactly the time I needed to pick my daughter up from camp. We ended up having to reschedule.

Also in this category: “I completely forgot about our interview” and not being available when I call at the appointed time.


“Just don’t use my name.”

I found this source for an article I was working on. She was great. Exactly who I was looking for, gave me a ton of great quotes, lots of fun to talk to.

I finished transcribing our interview and was just about to start writing the piece when I get an email from her. On second thought, she didn’t want her name to be used in the piece.

Now, sometimes publications are okay with this. Usually when the source is an “off the street” or “real life” person. And even then, it’s pretty much just when protecting the identity of a minor or a “real life” source who doesn’t want the world knowing that they’re involved with the touchy or controversial subject of the article in question.

Not for experts though. Because as an expert, you’re providing that in-the-trenches, in-the-know voice that readers turn to these articles for. If you’re not willing to attach your name (first and last) to your quotes, that doesn’t inspire much trust or confidence.

Not willing to have your name used? Let the writer know up front – preferably before the interview.

In this case, my editors were not okay with not using her name. Her quotes and contributions had to be scrapped and I had to bust my proverbial balls to find another expert to interview in her place.


“Can we reschedule?”

I have a three-year-old kid and a 10 year-old dog. I’ve got family on the other side of the ocean. I’m one of those human being creatures. I know things happen. I know sometimes they happen outside of your control. And I know that sometimes you have to move some things around to make stuff work.

That said, you picked the day and time of our interview. Not me.

In fact, I probably dropped a bunch of stuff in order to talk to you at this precise day and time because that’s when you told me you were free. And, to be honest, I need you to make this article work. If I can’t get this interview with you because of my own inflexibility, I’m back to square one.

So when you tell me you want to talk on Blahdeeday at x o’clock, and I shuffle my schedule around to accommodate you, and then you call or email (which usually happens just a few hours before we’re due to talk) to cancel… let’s just say it’s a wee bit frustrating.

Like I said, I know shit happens, but if it’s at all humanly possible, stick to the date and time you requested and we agreed upon.


“This is below me.”

Okay, so no one’s actually said that in so many words, but there has been many a time when it was alluded to. Either in the evident disappointment in their voice when they find out it’s not one of the newsstand rags I’m interviewing them for, or the way they make over the fact that they’re just “so busy” or their “schedule is packed,” or acting like making time to talk to me is as fun as making time to pop a pimple.

Anyone who knows anything about PR or marketing, in fact, anyone who has ever tried to sell anything, knows how beneficial getting your name in a newspaper or magazine article can be. You get more eyes on you, more people knowing about who you are and what you do. Saying you’ve been quoted in A, B, and C magazines is kind of a big deal. Even if it’s just one of the free weeklies in your small town.

Think of all the businesses who list the media outlets where they’ve been mentioned. Think of all the links to such articles on company website press pages. Think of how saying you’ve been quoted in the media will look on your resume, LinkedIn profile, professional bio, brochure, and all that.

Yes, you’re doing me a favor by taking the time to talk to me and share your expertise. But I’m also doing you a favor by spreading the word about you and the work you do (for free).

Publicity is a good thing, even if the publication can’t be purchased in a Barnes & Noble.


“I hope I’m not rambling.”

This is a tough one, because some of the people who say it actually aren’t. They’re perfect. Or could even “ramble” some more, as far as I’m concerned.

But there are some who are hell bent on telling me their life story during the interview.

Sadly, I cannot publish your entire history in a 500-1000 word article that’s supposed to be about something else. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Because it’s of little interest to the reader. What they want is to read what you have to say and put it to use. Preferably with immediate results.

Give me the severely abridged version. If it helps you to be concise, keep in mind that I have to transcribe the interview later. So, if nothing else, keep it brief for the sake of my fingers! If I need to know more, I’ll ask. I promise.


“You’ll probably want to know about…”

I’ll ask a question and, after answering, the source will say “Well, you probably want to know about [insert topic here].”

Sometimes, I do. In which case, it’s already on my list of questions I was going to ask you. Thanks for saving me some time.

More often than not, though, it’s not.

I once did an article (a few of them, actually) on traveling with children. One of my sources was giving me some great info when she said “Well, you probably want to know about traveling with teens,” and immediately launched into that spiel. I didn’t have the heart to stop her, so I sat while she went on for another 10 minutes about something I had no need of in my article.

That last part was my own stupid fault and is a lesson I have since learned. Perhaps I’ll write about it in a 9 Things I Hate About Myself as a Freelance Writer post.

Again, if I want to know, I’ll ask.

And if I don’t, I always end each interview by asking if there was something the source thought I would ask that I didn’t or if there’s anything else they wanted to add. I stole this from Linda Formichelli who’s recommended the interview tactic in countless blog posts and online courses, so I know I’m not the only writer who does this.

That’s the place to get that in there.

But by that time, she would have (hopefully) realized that I wasn’t interested in teens and brought up something more relevant to the article instead.

Not a nice, round 10, but, what can I say? I have awesome sources!

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