How to interview like a maestro

Sarah Kanowski is a presenter for ABC Radio National’s very popular Conversations. This was in the Review section of The Australian, May 11-12 2019. It sums up beautifully how to interview somebody.

“Find someone who has an interesting story to tell. This will be almost everybody. Greet your guest warmly, offer them a cup of tea and make sure they are sitting comfortably. When they are ready you may begin. To ask a question, make it a question – not your own opinion. It works best if the questions are short and open-ended: Why? What happened next? What did you see? What could you hear?  Have a sense of where you want the conversation to head but keep an ear out for the unexpected. Don’t worry about what you are going to ask next, listen instead to what you are being told. Listen also to what your guest is perhaps not saying in the answers they give. Ask about that. Look for stories, zoom in on the details that shine, but don’t get stuck on the trivial. Notice when your enthusiasm sparks. Let curiosity and empathy be your guides. Prodding is OK, pushing is not. Don’t approach  your guest like a boxer in the ring; don’t try to make them trip on their shoelace. If they sit back in their chair and gaze out the window while talking, this is a good sign, They are turning away from you and walking back into their memories. If they find themselves hit with grief, don’t interrupt. Give that sadness space. Join them in the joy. Without leaving your seat, stand next to them as they look (with wonder, curiosity, regret) at this thing that is their life.”

Day 22: Oxford Guide to Plain English

By Martin Cutts

Workplace and official writing suffers from way too much unclear language, officialese and legalese. Bureaucrats use language in a way that obscures meaning and confuses the reader. Often these kinds of documents are written using language that avoids taking responsibility. So using plain English clears up a lot of this confusion.

Readers feel that not understanding an insurance policy or a product guarantee makes us stupid or ignorant. We believe that not ‘getting it’ when we read a report means we’re not part of the club at work, and asking our manager to please explain is taboo. But in truth, avoiding what Martin Cutts calls ‘verbal confusion’ by using plain language, saves time and money, avoids confusion and empowers the reader.

The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)‘s definition of plain English: A written communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand it and use it.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English begins by describing what plain English is and how the movement is developing worldwide. There are 25 guidelines, covering:

  • style and grammar
  • preparing and planning
  • organizing the information
  • management of writing
  • plain English for specific purposes (email, instructions, the web, legal documents, and low-literacy readers)
  • layout
  • proofreading

The Oxford Guide to Plain English is an wonderful example of the craft: reader-friendly, well structured and easy to understand. It’s based on evidence and is full of examples and straightforward explanations. Read it from cover to cover or dip into it to it as you need to. It’s an absolute must for anybody who writes business reports, instructions, papers and the like.

Day 20: Writing True Stories

The complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

By Patti Miller

Great cover design!

This book was recommended to me more than once by people who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba. This shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part, and deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.

Writing True Stories is rounded out by a reading list and a page of useful contacts. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Why no Day 14? I was listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Day 18: New Oxford Style Manual


I bought this book to add to my collection of style manuals that now take up an entire shelf in my office. I edited a manuscript for submission to a UK publisher and so it had to follow UK style. And it worked! John Hockney’s memoir is to be published later this year by Legend Press in the UK, who are also publishing Mark Brandi‘s new novel, and have just released Into the River (Wimmera in Australia.)

Why would an editor want more than one style manual? Surely good style is just that? Not really. There are so many variations that are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather are choices. Your publisher and your reader want to see consistency. When it comes to word endings, for example, -ise and -ize are both correct, and both are used in UK English (although generally not in Australia). The Australian Style Manual will direct you use -ise;  Oxford stipulates -ize.

Two guides in one

You get two guides in this lovely chunky book: a style guide and a dictionary. The Oxford Style Manual is based on Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, first published in 1893. New Hart’s Rules makes up the first half of the book, and is aimed at writers, editors, self-publishers, digital publishers and anybody who has to present professional-looking papers, reports, essays and the like. Want to know how to handle footnotes and endnotes? There’s an entire chapter to guide you to getting it absolutely right. Wondering how the US and UK spellings differ and which you should use? Your answer is in the first section of this easy-to use reference.

Part II

Part II of the book is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. It’s specifically designed for those who work with words and generally guides you on anything tricky. ‘Driftwood’ is one word, but ‘drift ice’ and ‘drift net’ are preferred. Per cent or percent, or just %: which to use? I can check this in the dictionary in seconds.

The Appendices are a useful bonus, covering the Greek alphabet, mathematical symbols, diacritics and accents and chemical elements, as well as Presidents of the USA and Prime Ministers of Great Britain and of the UK.

Find it online

There’s even an online version of New Hart’s Rules that you can access for free, along with a thesaurus and bilingual dictionaries, writing help, grammar tips and a whole lot more.

Day 16: Maths in Minutes

200 Key concepts explained in an instant

By Paul Glendinning


I don’t think I’m unique among writers and editors in being pretty average when it comes to numbers and all things mathematical. I like this chunky little book because it has entries on Monstrous Moonshine (surely a terrible drink from the prohibition era?) and the barber paradox (which exposes the flaws in elementary set theory). Also because for the first time I have an inkling what trigonometry is.

This is a handy reference for brushing up on the basics and checking that mathematical terms in anything I’m editing are correct. It’s arranged starting from the basics (numbers, sets, geometry) and moves on to the more mind-blowing (matrices, topology). So a systematic working through would allow you to nod knowingly at a mathematicians’ convention morning tea.

The author pours cold water on my sense of enlightenment. ‘Only a lunatic would pretend that all mathematics could be presented in 200 bite-sized chunks’, he says. Be that as it may, Maths in Minutes is enough for most of us.

Day 13: Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.

Day 12: The Little Red Writing Book

By Mark Tredennick

There are many books, courses and workshops that teach writing. I’ve found many of them inspiring, motivating and full of great tips. For my money, this book is the best.

I’d advise anybody who wants to write better to sign up for a face-to-face course in the first instance. In Sydney, Writing NSW and the Australian Writers’ Centre both offer excellent courses on a range of genres, both creative and for business purposes. Varuna in the Blue Mountains has wonderful literary programs. In any face-to-face course, you’ll benefit from the interaction with other writers as well as from the course content.

The Little Red Writing Book is a great add-on to any writing course. And if you can’t do a course in person, it’s an extremely good substitute. It’s approach is that good sentences are the basis of all good writing. Any writing, from business reports to scripts for your podcast, starts with sentence construction. Clarity is vital, style is everything.

Tredinnick writes both clearly and poetically, so working through The Little Red Writing Book is a joy. It has plenty of writing exercises (do them!) and examples, and processes to help you get your writing project out of your head and into shareable form.

There are six chapters. Try setting yourself the goal of working through one chapter a month. By September you will be a much better writer, guaranteed.

The Little Red Writing Book has a sibling: The Little Green Grammar Book. Catch up on everything they should have taught you in school.

Day 11: Collins World Atlas


Which is larger, Corsica or Sardinia? Which is the least densely populated country in the world? Where exactly is Yemen?

I bought this atlas to answer questions like these. After a couple of school trivia nights, I realised my geographical knowledge was scant and outdated. I find I can browse its maps for hours and it has readily accessible information about all things geographic. Basic map symbols are explained and things like time zones and national flags are included. There are interesting facts to be found, such as that in 1950 there were 82 countries and by 2011 there were 196, South Sudan being the newest. The smallest is Vatican City, at only half a square kilometre.

A concise atlas like this one is useful for an editor in checking facts: latitude and longitude, capital cities, rivers, lakes and other landforms that it’s easy to get wrong. What’s the correct way to write Russian or Korean names in English? The Collins World Atlas has used the name forms approved by the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Use. These are the accepted way to display non-Roman alphabet names in English. The atlas’s comprehensive index makes it easy to check spellings and pinpoint exact locations. Be sure that there will always be a reader willing to alert you – and the world – to your errors if facts like these are not correct.

Another good use of the atlas is for leisurely browsing, placing characters from novels I’ve read in their landscapes, following the course of a river I hadn’t heard of before, wondering about the seemingly arbitrary nature of borders and marvelling at the intricacy of our little blue planet.

Day 8: I used to Know That – General Science

By Marianne Taylor


I often have to check facts about things I either never knew or have forgotten. This book is a simple cheat’s guide to physics (never knew), chemistry (new a little) and biology ( loved, but it’s changed a bit in many fields , like genetics). I keep it on my office shelf so that when I need to know which law of thermodynamics, or how does photosynthesis work, again it’s right there. I can check it in a minute.

I hate pseudoscience, and there’s so much of it around, from anti-vaccination to detox diets, homeopathy to climate change denial. I want to be able to spot it – and help stamp it out. Because, as the book says, ‘being able to understand how science works is one of the best things about being human.’