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Nonfiction Writers—Who Are Your Sources?

A friend recently asked me this question: “Where do journalists get their sources?”

It’s a good question. If you’re writing nonfiction, where will you get your sources? Your choice of sources is critical because it affects the accuracy, reliability, and completeness of your story.

This article explains how to decide what sources to talk to and how to find them.

The criteria of a good source

Finding good sources is arguably the single most difficult challenge nonfiction writers face.  Sources must be knowledgeable, willing to talk, and preferably articulate. And, unless you’re specifically seeking diverse comments on a controversial issue, sources must be unbiased. Sources must also be accessible. Finding an excellent source for your story won’t do you any good if you and the source can’t get together.

But it’s not enough to find sources who meet the above qualifications. You also need a wide variety of sources. Here’s an example:

A city council was discussing the issue of short-term rentals, that is, homes that are listed on websites as being available for a few days or weeks. The council’s concern was about legal issues for both homeowners and the city if nefarious actions took place in rented homes.

A news outlet ran the story, and interviewed these sources:

The city council president

A homeowner who currently rents her home on a short-term basis

A homeowner who lives in an area where others rent their homes

All those are fine, but to make a complete, well-rounded story, they might also have interviewed an attorney who understood the potential legal problems, someone from one of the short-term rental websites, and even what journalists call a MOS (Man On the Street) source. A MOS source, in this example, would be someone who knows as much about short-term rentals as most people know about nuclear engineering. Why, then, would that person be a good source? It’s because they would probably have an opinion on the topic, and their opinion about short-term rentals would add interesting color to the story.

What sources should we talk to?

Let’s say you’re writing a story about the problem of drinking and driving. Who are your sources going to be?

Start with someone who was in a crash caused by a drunk driver, or a person who received a DUI or caused a DUI-related crash. Then look for family members of a DUI-related crash victim.

Get information from an expert in DUI issues, such as a police officer who patrols for drunk drivers. Then add a spokesperson for an anti-DUI organization. Finally, speak with a MOS source. Remember MOS sources have no direct connection with the story, in this case drinking and driving. It’s never directly affected them. But no doubt they have an opinion.

You can readily see how interviewing each of these sources, or at least as many as feasible, rounds out the story and gives it depth.

How do you find sources?

Let’s take our scenario a bit further and think about how we’d actually get in touch with each of the sources.

The process of finding potential sources is not difficult, although getting them to cooperate may be. If I were writing a DUI story, I would call a law enforcement agency asking for an officer with experience in DUI-related issues. I’d also get in touch with an anti-DUI agency such as MADD or RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers). Both of these sources would probably be fairly easy to reach because each has a vested interest in your story topic.

Finding a victim or family member of a victim might be trickier. Perhaps I personally know someone. Or I might shoot an email to my friends asking if they do.

MOS sources are generally easy to find. In the world of journalism, reporters walk up to random people and say, “I work for such-and-such a news outlet. We’re doing a story about drinking and driving. I’d like to get your opinion.” You can do the same.

So you see that finding sources is limited only by your creativity and willingness to work at it.

Finding good sources is challenging. Sometimes potential sources don’t want to talk or back out of interviews. But be persistent, because the more people you talk to, and the wider variety, the better your nonfiction story will be.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski