Most of the articles you write should include at least one and often three interviews, plus of course facts, perhaps some anecdotal material, and probably some artwork (usually photos).
In fact, the most persuasive items selling the article are the interviews or quotes you promise the editor in your query letter. Like a piece about modern-day circus clowns where you say “I’ll build the article around interviews with America’s top three clowns.” (You might mention their names, if that will help the sale, but you have more freedom getting the exchanges without the names in case one or the other won’t cooperate or is unavailable. Instead, you might say “three top clowns…, including XXXX and XXXX.”)
Must you have the interviews set up before the query? No. With whom you will speak will depend on which publication you are writing for, plus the slant your piece will take. You might talk to altogether different clowns for a senior magazine than you would for one directed at kids 8-12 years old.
The working order, then, is to outline an interesting topic, see what magazines might use it, make a prioritized list of those markets, and start with the best “go-ahead” and work down. Once you have the theme and the readers, find the best people to approach. Figure 10-15 minutes per person maximum, sometimes just five minutes, so you must prepare about four questions that will yield enough interesting quotes to work into your written presentation.
I usually start with a fairly broad question, and as the person is answering that I segue (smoothly, I hope) into the second question, which is the most important one. By naturally blending that question in, the person is more likely to give you a more spontaneous answer than something “canned.”
All that’s left is getting the interview and creating a super article.
You need to know the phone number of the interviewee and some current and top historical information about your target. Using Google for those facts usually works best, or check the circus where the clown is now performing and ask for the P.R. person, who might also send you some .jpgs photos as email attachments. Then call the person directly (not too early and not close to performance hours) and say, “Hi, Mr. _____. I’m writing an article for _______ Magazine and I wonder if I we could speak for about 10 minutes, when it’s most convenient for you. My article is about the three most famous clowns in America.” Then let him answer, get the time, double-check the phone he would prefer to be called at, and confirm the date. “Looking forward to it. I’ll talk to you then. Thank you.” Call as promised! (Be ready if the person wants to do the interview right then. That happened the to me when I asked the “when” question to Governor Adlai Stevenson, who said, “Why not right now?”)
Remember, you must know enough about the interviewee to sound intelligent and ask the most interesting questions. So be prepared! And remember to let the person talk–he doesn’t want to know about you!
Do you need further permission to use this material in your articles? Nope; the permission is implied when they spoke with you. (But you can’t change what they said.)
Finally, take the results of those interviews and weave them into super prose. And after this gem sees print, always snail mail a print copy to the clowns, with sincere thank you notes.
Are that thank you note and copy of the article important? You bet. Very often (maybe a third of the time) I will return to that person as part of another article. When I call them for another interview, they will be more gracious and eager to cooperate the second (and sometimes third) time around.
(I describe the writing/selling process in much greater detail in the Travel Writer’s Guide.)