Oct. 2023 Compelling Writing

What to do when they won’t talk with you

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

A write-around is a reporting technique in which your main subject won’t talk with you. 

This is often true about people who are caught up in controversy or the subject of a law enforcement investigation.

They believe if they won’t talk or respond, you will become discouraged and go away.

If they rebuff you or say “no comment,” remind them that the story will be published without their cooperation, says investigative reporter Patrick Radden Keefe. You are offering them an opportunity to give their side of the story.

Keefe has reported on the Irish Troubles, drug lord El Chapo and the Sackler family involved in the opioid crisis. He says you will need cooperation from their friends or associates for a write-around. 

Sometimes people will say “no” and then they are contacted by others they know saying, “I just talked to that reporter,” Keefe says. 

Tell the subject’s friends you have already talked with others to make them may feel less anxious about talking with you. They often change their minds and agree to talk.

“I try to be compassionate,” Keefe says. “I don’t come in with a big agenda. I want to be open with them.”

It helps if they get a sense from your questions that this is not going to be a hatchet job on their friend. They feel that you’re going to approach the story responsibly. That means giving more than one side.

Next: Write in your head first

If our reporters wrote better it would make editing their work easier. It would make  our news and feature articles sing. But we lack the time to coach them. Here’s a secret. Help them with a copy of writing coach Jerry Bellune’s The Art of Compelling Writing, $9.99 at Amazon.com. They’re worth the investment.

Other recent columns