Category Archives: Nonfiction Writing

Super Quick Grammar: Affect vs. Effect

affect effectI’ve seen it three or four times in the last week – mix-ups of “affect” and “effect.” So, since little things like that drive the editor in me crazy, here’s a quick grammar lesson on what the words mean and how to correctly use them.

The basics: In everyday language, “affect” is a verb that most commonly means to influence something. For example, “The storms will affect whether the tennis team plays its match.” “Effect,” on the other hand, is normally used as a noun that shows an outcome – the result of something happening. “She began to feel better when the medicine took effect.”

Of course, like many words in the English language, both affect and effect can have other meanings and be used as other parts of speech. “Affect” can be used as a noun to describe facial expression. (“She affected a blank expression.”) “Effect” might sometimes take on verb form. (“The new principal effected some positive changes in the school.”)

I won’t drag on about other nuances and possible uses. If you’d like to read more, check out this info from, Grammar Girl, or

A trick: And, as suggests, one way to keep “affect” and “effect” straight is to remember that “affect” comes first alphabetically, and an action (to affect) has to occur before you can have a result (an effect).

Your turn: What words do you often see getting mixed up (either by you or by other people)? Let’s straighten them out!

5 Things to Remember During an Interview

question markIt’s OK to be a little nervous before interviewing someone, but don’t let it worry you too much. If you’ve followed the steps from last week about preparing for a great interview, you’re already moving in the right direction. Now that it’s time to talk with the person, follow these five things to make your interview a success.

1. Be the reminder. Just like you can’t remember every possible question without writing them down, the person you talk with might not remember why you’re interviewing him or her. Take a minute to remind him or her that this is for the school newspaper or a history class assignment or whatever. If you have certain things you’re supposed to include in the interview, mention that, too. It will help your interviewee to know the kinds of questions you’ll be asking.

2. Double check everything. Once you’re ready to begin the interview, take one very important step before asking the first question on your list. Ask the person how to spell his or her name, and verify other details you’ll be including in your article. For example, if you’re interviewing an author about her new book, you’ll want to get the title right. If the new coach says he went to college at USC, ask whether he means the University of South Carolina or the University of Southern California. Every detail matters.

3. Let them talk. You don’t want the coach to talk about his vegetable garden when you’re trying to learn his plans for basketball season. But you also don’t want to be so focused on your list of questions that you don’t give him the chance to talk about some things he enjoys. You might learn some great stuff once he starts talking about something a bit different, but don’t let him hijack your whole plan.

4. Ask the best question. Even after many years of writing, I’ve learned that no matter how well I prepare, I’ll still probably leave a question off my list. That’s where my “one best question” comes into play. When we’re nearing the end of the interview, I ask, “What would be the one thing you’d want people to know about _________?” I fill in the blank or maybe change the question a little, depending on the situation. For an author, I might ask, “What’s the one thing you hope people will learn by reading your book?” For the grandfather who flew in World War II, I might ask, “What was the one thing that surprised you most about flying during a combat mission?” The “one thing” question has given me some of the best answers during interviews with all sorts of people. It can work for you, too, no matter who you interview.

Large wooden doors5. Leave the door open. Just because your time runs out doesn’t mean the interview ends. Once you sit down to write, you might think of other questions or you might need help remembering something. That’s OK – professionals can find themselves in the same situation. As you end the interview, thank the person for his or her time, and ask if you can call or email if you have questions once you start writing the article. I can virtually guarantee they’ll say “yes.”

Your turn: If you could ask one person one question, who would it be and what would you ask?


5 Steps to Prepare for a Great Interview

Interviews aren’t just for people on the news. You need to interview people sometimes, too, even if you don’t think of it that way. Maybe your teacher wants you to talk to your grandparents about something for history class. Or maybe you’re supposed to write an article for the school newspaper about the new basketball coach.

QAHowever you look at it, you have questions and that other person has the answers.

Find the answers for yourself – and make sure it’s a success – by following these 5 steps to prepare for interviewing the person.

1. Research things ahead of time. Learn about the person you’ll be interviewing and some basic things about the subject you’ll be discussing. You don’t have to know everything (that’s what the person you’re interviewing is for), but you need to know enough to feel comfortable asking questions.

2. Remember the point. Know why you want to talk to this person – what you want to learn – and keep the interview focused on that. Be sure the person you’ll interview also knows the purpose so they won’t talk about everything else. The other stories might be interesting, but if they don’t relate to your assignment, they won’t do you any good. If you’re supposed to write about your grandfather’s experience as a pilot during World War II, talk about that. Save the recap of last week’s fishing trip for another time.

3. Create your list. As you decide on the questions to ask, write them down – preferably all in the same place, so you can keep track of everything. The list will grow and change as you prepare, and that’s OK. Try to write questions that can’t just be answered with “yes” or “no,” because that will give you much better information to work from when it’s time to write.

4. Prioritize. Once you have all your questions written, prioritize them so you’ll always be able to cover the most important points. Years ago, I scheduled an interview with a retired professional athlete for an article promoting things for a local hospital. We scheduled a 30-minute time slot and I researched and organized things again and again to prepare. When I called for the interview, I learned that my time had been cut from 30 minutes to 10 minutes because some other commitments had filled the athlete’s calendar. Oh no! I didn’t even have enough time to panic. But I had prioritized my list, so I was able to get answers to my top three questions before our time ran out. If I hadn’t rewritten my questions in order, I would have wasted precious minutes trying to figure out a game plan.

checklist5. Confirm details. When you schedule the interview, confirm all the details before ending the conversation. Verify the time and date you’ll be talking and whether you’ll talk over the phone or face-to-face. If you’ll be calling, get the best phone number to use. If you’ll be interviewing in person, get directions to the place you’ll meet (unless you’re absolutely sure). Also write down the person’s email if possible, so you have a back-up way to contact him or her if needed.

Your turn: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever interviewed? Or, who would be the one person you’d love to interview more than anyone else?

Next time: Now that you’ve done the prep work, make sure the actual interview goes smoothly. I’ll share 5 ways to make that happen – including my best interview question, no matter who the person is or what we’re talking about.

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