To Record or not to Record: Transcripts are for court stenographers

Transcribing recorded interviews is far and away my least favorite part of being a freelance reporter. In fact, I rarely record interviews unless my editor requests it, and it’s not just because I’m only a fair typist on my fastest day. Here are five reasons I rely on old-fashioned pen and paper for most interviews, whether I do them in person, over the phone or via Skype:

  • I can start the editing process immediately. I only record meaty quotes word for word, spending the rest of the time summarizing and noting other details that might be helpful when I’m writing.
  • It’s less intimidating to the source. When you let someone know you are recording them, they sometimes obsess over every single word and phrase. That rarely results in a string of colorful quotes or engaging anecdotes.
  • Recording makes me a lazy writer. I’ve found if I’ve taken the time to transcribe a ton of quotes, I’ll use them, even when putting some things in my own words will make for a better story or a more compelling read.
  • Reporters are overly paranoid about  misrepresenting people. A study by a University of Arizona linguistics professor showed only 13 of 98 quotations taken from Arizona newspapers proved verbatim when compared with recordings, but only two proved to be incompatible with the meaning of the original statement. When in doubt, I read quotes back to sources or simply ask themselves. Trust me, they don’t mind.
  • Technology stinks. Free programs to record Skype calls don’t activate automatically. New apps that are supposed to capture both sides of a cell phone conversation result in recordings that sound as though they were made in a concrete mixer. Batteries fail. You name it, I’ve experienced it.

Don’t get me wrong, taping has its time and place. I know plenty of reporters who record every interview. And I tape most personality profile interviews so I can spend more time jotting down details about a subject’s environment and mannerisms and hear their tone and speech patterns again and again during the writing process. I also tape interviews I think I might use some time in the far-flung future. But, for the most part, I save the transcription work for court reporters and spend my time perfecting my personalized brand of shorthand.

What about you? Do you rely on recordings or stick to pen and paper?


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Writing Goals for 2015

I believe working as an adjunct professor is a labor of love. Many who do it could make a lot more money per hour applying their skills outside the classroom. But some, like me, enjoy teaching and want to continue sharing their knowledge with students, albeit not on a full-time basis.

Well, this semester, it’s time for me to prove my long-standing claim that I could earn far more money freelancing than I do in the classroom. I will only be teaching one class and plan to devote much more energy to writing, researching and reporting.

Here are five freelancing goals I aim to achieve in the first half of 2015:

  • Begin every work day by sending out a query. This might be a fresh idea or an existing pitch that I re-slant or re-purpose for a different potential market. In either case, my plan is not to start on anything else until this task is complete.
  • Keep better track of my income and expenses. Rather than dumping all my invoices, check stubs and receipts into a folder until tax time, my goal is to keep running totals that give me an immediate idea of whether I’m making more this year than last.
  • Find five new clients and resolve to do more work for editors I enjoy. Sending a query a day should help me achieve the first part of this objective. To accomplish the second, I plan to propose a new story to my favorite current clients as soon as I turn assignments in to them.
  • Blog more, both for this site and others, and earn more money for guest posts. I’ve already subscribed to’s Morning Coffee eNewsletter, which lists many paid blogging opportunities. ProBlogger’s job board will also be a regular cyber stop for me in 2015.
  • Explore new types of writing. I haven’t had a personal essay published since grad school. And I haven’t written educational materials for anyone but my own students since leaving the K-12 classroom several years ago. Both are genres I hope to conquer again in 2015, and my first step is researching potential markets for personal essays.

What are your writing goals for 2015?

Free Photo from morgueFile

Free Photo from morgueFile

Filling the Praise Reservoir

As a teacher and freelance writer, I’m no stranger to criticism. In fact, I welcome a well-thought- out revision from an editor or insightful comment from a student that really shows they’ve paid attention and want to make you and your work better in the future.

But as the semester and calendar year come to a close, I always make time to refill my own praise reservoir for the dark days when students seem to be putting in exponentially less effort than I and the freelance assignments are few and far between. I review and save any appreciative emails from students and editors and carefully file the rare handwritten card in its own special folder. Refilling the reservoir also means reading unflattering emails editors may have sent on a bad day in the last six months and revisiting the last round of end-of-semester evaluations that slammed the textbook I didn’t choose myself or picked apart my Southern accent as “just too much” before deleting them for good.

Criticism can contain valuable nuggets of advice to help guide improvement, but it never seems in short supply. However, it’s not every day you get a sketch from a student that depicts you single-handedly pulling a soda truck to its destination, so I’d certainly save those when they come along.


An overdue visit to Gratitude Road

This piece from The New York Times had some interesting ideas to help us express gratitude. It inspired this letter, which I unfortunately can’t deliver to its addressee. I hope it encourages some readers to write — and actually deliver — one of their own while they have the opportunity.

Dear Ernie,

I came to visit today to share this letter with you. I could have mailed it, but I wanted to tell you in person how grateful I am that you are my mentor and friend.

You were one of my first bosses and will always be my best. When I started working at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s business desk, I called you Mr. Beazley, even though I knew it was old fashioned, because I already respected you so much.  You asked me to call you Ernie because Mr. Beazley made you feel old. Funny to think I’m almost as old as you were then and I, too, despise it when 23 year olds call me Ms. Oldham.

I’d like to think we have a lot in common because you were always there for your young staff, both personally and professionally.

I’ll never forget the time you asked me to make sure “in a sisterly way” that Theo’s dress shirt fit him before he came in for his second day of interviews in Little Rock. It was then that I knew both you and he were too good for the pedestrian world of the workplace and I was truly fortunate to share office space with you.  I’d like you to know so many of the things you did and said stuck. Every time I write a weak lead, I still think about the time you said your dog Blackie could do better. If he was your dog, I have no doubt that he really could have.

I don’t know why we never got together for coffee after I left the paper. And I don’t know why I didn’t do a better job of keeping in touch, which makes it tragic that I can’t, in fact, deliver this letter of gratitude in person.  But I hope that you somehow know what it says anyway — and that it doesn’t have any misspellings or AP style mistakes.



photo credit: <a href=””>bartmaguire</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


If You Love Your Mission, Celebrate and Share It

I was honored to be selected as Umission’s Person of the Week this week. Umission is a local nonprofit dedicated to celebrating people who love their mission, activating people who want a mission to love, and investigating how to keep that mission vibrant and successful.”

I am truly grateful to have found a mission I love and am able to share through writing and teaching. Lately, that mission has become even more vibrant because of my experience leading adult continuing education classes as St. Louis Community College. It was one of my students there, Suzy Shepard, who wrote this Person of the Week Q and A featuring me that I am sure cuts out quite a few “ahhs” and “ums” while allowing me to give long-overdue recognition to a 5th grade teacher I still happen to be friends with through Facebook. When I  posted the story, she wrote, “Thanks, it does make me smile. You never know as a teacher what you say or do that helps a child. I loved teaching.”

Well said. So, if you have a mission you love, become a mentor. And if you need a mission, find someone who loves what they do because spreading that love is what helps keep it alive.

When should freelancers turn down assignments?

When I started freelancing a few years ago, I hadn’t had a published clip in more than a decade. Eager to rebuild my portfolio, I spent the days I wasn’t teaching writing queries and letters of introduction and searching for new markets at my local library and bookstore. I have to admit I also watched a few episodes of “Ellen” during the day.

The occasional assignment provided a welcome break from that routine, not to mention an even-more-welcome check in the mail. In time, my portfolio grew, as did my list of clients. I also started seeking jobs through the online clearinghouse Elance. The site offers thousands of ads from people looking to hire freelancers for everything from writing to web design projects. And, though many jobs offer shockingly low rates, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few regular clients who’ve made signing up for the site worth it.

Today, I am in the enviable position of having as much work as I want, at least while trying to enjoy the summer schedule of a teacher who works during the academic year as both a freelancer and adjunct professor. After all, part-time professoring and doesn’t offer many bankable benefits, so summers off should be embraced and enjoyed.

In fact, I have been considering turning a few assignments down in recent weeks. With the beginning of the semester less than a month away, I have a couple of major deadlines and due dates for a few smaller assignments looming as well as a planned vacation to visit family.

So here are a few things I’ve been considering while weighing assignments and opportunities lately. Some questions are culled from my own experience while others come from freelancers who’ve proven it sometimes pays to say no.

1. What is the hourly rate? Freelancer Kelly James-Enger recommends looking at assignments with this question in mind rather than getting fixated on the rate per word an editor offers. Sure national magazines that pay $1 or more a word are attractive, but writers should consider the total time it takes to pitch, research, write and revise a piece that might not see print for months.

2. Is it interesting? Don’t get me wrong. I was a business reporter for a wire service at one point in my career, so I have penned many dry stories in my time. But now that I am a freelancer, I have more latitude to focus on stories and projects about health, wellness, education and other topics that make no mention of analysts’ estimates or earnings per share and take longer than 30 minutes to turn out.

3. Is it my area of expertise? I recently came across a couple of opportunities that, at first blush, seemed interesting. One was an ad for a freelance proofreader for the local alternative weekly. Although I am an experienced writer, I must say I am not the fastest or most-effective copy editor. The job also seemed better suited to a recent college graduate with an deeper inherent interest in reading about and attending concerts at dingy clubs that offer neither convenient seating nor an extensive selection of craft beers. The other was for a full-time magazine editorial position that required some television appearances. While my appetite said yes to this, my Arkansas accent logged a firm “Naaaw.”

What questions do you consider when weighing assignments? And how have you eventually learned to say no to new work?


When Do I Get a Personal Assistant?

This week, I’m faced with the task of transcribing at least two interviews with executives in order to write profiles about them for an online magazine. I can say without qualification that transcribing recorded interviews is my least favorite aspect of freelance writing. In fact, I rarely record interviews, relying on real-time note taking unless I know I am writing a personality profile or anticipate the interview to be extremely technical or fast paced. One reason is that I am painfully slow at transcribing audio recordings. At best, I probably type 45 words a minute, and this rate probably slows to the single digits at times when I am stopping and starting a recording to catch that last few words that will make or break a quote.

This brings me to the question posed in the title of this post. In scheduling interviews with executives, I often deal with personal assistants. These people tend to be efficient, effective communicators who handle everything from booking appointments to maintaining meeting minutes. And I’m almost sure ever single one of them types faster than 45 words a minute.

So when do I get a personal assistant?

And I’m not talking about a souped-up smartphone that can cross-reference your calendar and transit schedules to immediately alert you about train delays  (creepy and cool in equal measures) or even a real person somewhere in the virtual world who promises to transcribe five, 10 or even 20 minutes of video or audio for the low, low rate of just $5 (as suspiciously priced as the $1.19 pineapples at ALDI). I’m talking about a real personal assistant who can solve problems and take on tasks I’m not great at or just don’t want to tackle.

Would a personal assistant increase my efficiency? I’m not sure. For all my grand plans, I might use the extra time to pet my cat or play a few extra games of Words With Friends. But I sure would love having the luxury of laziness or the promise of productivity ahead of me. And I promise I’d pay more than $5.

Which tasks do you outsource or wish you could? I would love to hear from you in the comments section.

She's cute, but not a very good typist.

She’s cute, but not a very good typist.

Failed Query: Timely Research Can Kill a Query

This failed query illustrates the dangers of using research (in this case, a survey from November 2012) that may be considered time sensitive as the crux of a pitch to a monthly magazine that could have a six-month lead time.

Dear Ms. Editor:

A survey released in November shows an increasing number of shoppers are willing to pay a premium for American-made goods, even if those consumers call China home. Indeed, more than 60 percent of Chinese consumers said they are willing to pay more for products made in the U.S.A., and 80 percent of American consumers agreed according to recent research from The Boston Consulting Group. These taste trends and other factors lead BCG to estimate the U.S. could add 5 million new jobs in manufacturing and related services by the end of the decade.

Patriotism and cache aren’t the only factors behind those findings. Consumers who buy brands made in the U.S. know more about the wages and working conditions of the people who sew their clothes. And locally sourced clothing carries added benefits for the environment since it doesn’t have to be shipped as far from its factory to store shelves.

I would like to propose a story for XX that examines the resurgence in U.S. manufacturing. I could also provide readers with five to 10 brands that make fashion-forward clothes and accessories domestically. Some suggestions include Prairie Well, Barbara Lesser, School House and Red Ants Pants. I would be happy to provide a longer list of brands depending on what types of clothes you’d like to feature. I can also give you an idea of length, art and sidebars once you decide on a specific angle that best fits your needs.

As for my professional credentials, I have a decade of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News. Most recently, I have been working on stories scheduled for publication by national magazines and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, DRAFT Magazine, Poets & Writers and WOW! Women On Writing.

To avoid clogging your inbox with attachments, I have included a link to my resume. You can also find some writing samples at: should you be interested.


Charlene Oldham

Free Photo from MorgueFile

Free Photo from MorgueFile

“If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now?”

Views from the Pousada in Paraty

In response to to today’s Daily Post Writing 101 assignment, which asks, “If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now?” I am republishing an old entry about Brazil. Although I would not necessarily like to be there in the midst of World Cup madness, I long to go back and am sure I will someday sooner than later.

My boyfriend and I recently spent almost two weeks traveling along the coast of Brazil, making stops in São Paulo, Paraty and Rio de Janeiro before visiting friends in Ubatuba. Along the way, we enjoyed a small cross section of the scenery, culture, and food of the South American country, including a dinner at

Views from the Pousada

Views from the Pousada in Paraty

Caminho do Ouro, an intimate mãe-and-pai restaurant that served some of the most delicious seafood and risotto I have ever encountered. To our surprise, the only other diner at the restaurant spoke fluent English thanks to his time studying art in Denver in the late 1970s. That diner and former Denverite was Aécio Sarti, a well-known painter who, along with the devoted dog waiting against the glass front door of the restaurant, calls Paraty home. Sarti shared stories about his art, his time in America, and the reason so many of the friendly stray dogs on Paraty’s streets enjoy good health and full bellies. Turns out many of the historic town’s residents feed the strays, and some even nab them for periodic visits to the town’s vets, who treat them at a discount. Sarti’s canine bodyguard had been among those ranks, but proved “too sticky” to shake according to the artist who, of course, named him “Glue.”

Used by permission from the artist

In my time there, I was often confronted by the two faces of Brazil, which seemed to be firmly in the first world in some respects and mired in the third in others. It’s a beautiful and resource-rich country struggling to update its infrastructure in time to take the international stage during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics and a fast-growing economic engine where the public schools run in two shifts to combat crowding. And, while it has garnered praise from the World Bank “for progress in reducing social and economic inequality,” considering a third of the population of its two largest cities still live in favelas, it clearly has a long way to go on the path toward parity (as do most nations, including my own). But if Brazilians’ appreciation of good food, innovative art, and stray dogs are any indicator, it’s making some significant strides in that direction.  Personally, I can’t wait to visit again to see just how far it’s come.

Fruit is always on the menu in Brazil

Cleansing the Body, Muddling the Mind

I’m in the middle of a 10-day food cleanse right now and it seems to be going well. I can’t say I’ve adhered to the guidelines without fail. But I have been following the “rules” for the most part, and my body already looks and feels a little different as a result.

This got me thinking about what a 10-day mind cleanse might look like. Would it entail only reading classic literature and cutting out television. Maybe I could add news programming and PBS during the last few days. Should I avoid the computer all together, or just social media sites like Facebook? And what about music? Would a 10-day diet of only classical music leave my mind a more detoxified place?

There are many resources for those who strive to practice clean eating, but what of clean thinking? Too bad there isn’t a list of detailed ingredients on the back of every novel or magazine, something to warn readers the contents were nothing but the literary equivalent of trans fats.

For now, I’m satisfied with my start on detoxifying my body, but I aim to do the same thing for my brain later this summer, before too many deadlines and the specter of school beginning again draw my attention away. Meanwhile, I’m always open to suggestions on how to make my mind a more pure place.


Free Photo from MorgueFile

Free Photo from MorgueFile