When I first started writing for alumni magazines, I was conducting an interview that seemed to be going perfectly.
I’d prepared a great list of questions, the conversation was going smoothly, and I could already envision how well the story was going to turn out. I was 22, I had just been assigned my first story for an alumni magazine, and I was going to crush it.
And then, as I was wrapping up the interview, the woman I was talking to—a donor who’d just given a substantial gift to the college—asked me a question that made me grit my teeth with frustration: “Will I have a chance to review this story before it’s published?”
You’ve probably gotten this question before, too.
And maybe, like me, you had all sorts of defensive questions in your head:
- Is there something that I said during our interview that made her think she couldn’t trust me?
- I’m a REAL JOURNALIST! Why should she get to see what I’ve written?
- Oh, crap. What if she hates what I write and I have to start from scratch?
I spent years resisting source reviews for my college and university clients, doing them grudgingly and only when asked.
Then, a few years ago, I realized that the very best thing I could do was to embrace source reviews.
And maybe you should, too.
Yes, giving sources the chance to review a draft or their section within a feature is different from “real journalism.” And maybe it makes us write a little differently than we might if the source wasn’t going to see anything but the published story.
But in many ways, that point of differentiation from “real journalism” makes it better:
Benefit #1: Accuracy. For the most part, people we interview know their fields way better than we do, and they’re going to catch the subtle errors that both writers and editors miss, even after many reviews. (I mean, unless you’re working in a robustly funded publications office that has dedicated New Yorker-style fact-checkers.) At least 95 percent of the time, I actually think having sources give the story a look makes it better.
Benefit #2: Peace of mind and happy sources. When a source comes back to you with only the words “Looks good to me,” you can sleep easier, knowing that you’re not going to have an angry alum or faculty member calling you the day they receive the publication. Instead, those sources are going to be calling you up asking for a dozen copies for their family and friends, and they’ll be happy to talk to you again in the future.
Benefit #3: More empathetic stories. For me, when I know I’m sending a story to a source, I’m extra thoughtful about how I use their quotes, how I talk about their work, and how I frame their stories in relation to others. It’s the same kind of care I would hope another writer would have if they wrote about me.
Today, source approvals are something I include in my process for almost all of my clients—and I couldn’t be happier to do it. Probably 98 percent of the time, I’m entirely satisfied with the process. And I’ve learned how to manage the other 2 percent of the time when things don’t go exactly as planned. Here’s how you can, too.
Mastering the art of the source approval
Since that first source approval request (which went fine, by the way), I’ve done thousands of them. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it right.
1. Note your policy when you interview your source. When you first get on a call with a source, mention at the very beginning that they’ll have a chance to review the copy for accuracy once it’s gone through a first round of edits.
This often sets sources at ease. In fact, many will tell you that they’re grateful, because they’ve had a previous experience in which a journalist mangled their words or ideas.
2. Keep a list of email addresses of your sources at the end your story draft. This is purely for time-saving purposes. It’s much easier to work off of a collected list than to have to mine your email account for addresses weeks or even months after you’ve done the interviews. You can click on those links, use a source review request template, and send it out in minutes. Easy.
3. Send the full draft with their quotes/sections highlighted. It’s not usually necessary to slice out the rest of the story. Simply say something along the lines of “I’ve included the full story here (which you’re welcome to read), but all I need you to do is review the sections where you and your ideas are featured, which are highlighted.”
I know this seems super dangerous, but I haven’t had any major problems to date, and I’m close to 20 years in.
4. Create extremely strict guidelines for any changes. Obviously, if facts are wrong, you want to get them right. But it’s helpful to add something along the lines of “Because of space restrictions in the publication, please make sure any changes you suggest don’t add more than 10 words to the final word count.”
In other words: modifying a sentence? Great. Adding three paragraphs of “context?” Hahahahahah. No.
5. Respond kindly, non-defensively, and if needed, by phone. Every so often, someone is going to feel you really got it wrong. Sometimes, they really do have a reasonable gripe, and sometimes they’re just crazy.
When you hear back from someone who wants to see big changes, or who’s mad about the story, try diffuse the tension as quickly as possible. Write back and tell them that obviously, it’s very important to you and to the college that you get their story right (it is!), and that you’ll make sure you get to a point where they’re happy.
When I’m in this situation, I’ll sometimes get on the phone and discover it’s literally two sentences that they’re furious about. The more quickly I can get them to understand that they’re dealing with me, an actual human being, and that we actually both share the same goals, the more quickly we can resolve the problem.
* * *
So that’s how I do it! I’d love to know what you think. Do you believe that source approvals are an integral part of your work, a necessary evil, or something to be avoided at all costs? Email me and let me know. I read every response.