A big part of every journalist’s job and some genre and literary writers as well, is conducting effective interviews on various topics as part of their every day routine.
For journalists, it is a matter of expanding the story adding depth to a news report or feature piece and for genre writers it is about adding information relevant to the plot or character development;if what you’ve learned and included in your writing it isn’t propelling your story forward, or it is just filling space, it is best to leave it out.
To find a source, aka the interviewee, it is important to first determine what your plot needs are or what your article is all about. Once you have that established you will begin to make progress.
Know your topic
Before writing a story on say, carpentry, it is useful to know a bit about the trade. Do you know any carpenters? What do they look like? They’re human you say? Look deeper; are their hands covered in saw dust? Write that down. Do they dress well? Do they like tuna sandwiches on rye bread or plain? If you know these things and you’re writing a news article, leave it out, unless it is pertinent to the story. Are you writing a literary piece? Use this information and tell the reader whether your character drinks whiskey or coffee with it. In literature it is nice to see prose with attention to detail in the scenes. Moving on… what tools does a carpenter use? Write potential questions about the tools or subjects related to the trade, person or the business you are interviewing.
Conduct your interview in a public space or over the phone whenever possible.
If you are new to interviewing you may want to (with the interviewees permission) record the interview and then go over the interview and write it out long hand or type it into a computer file and then save the file multiple times and in at least two places as a back up.
I’ve found the fastest way to record responses from sources is not using shorthand but in doing phone interviews and learning to type the interviewee’s reply as it is spoken. There’s a catch with this; you need to inform the interviewee that you are taking down their responses and beg for their patience if you are new to this method of recording interviews.
Asking the right questions
When conducting interviews there are several approaches an interviewer can take to get responses.
First off, start by asking the person’s name and have them spell it out for you.
You might be surprised at the differences in common names such as Sarah, Lily and Philip, for instance.
Introduce yourself again and re-hash the purpose of the interview and what you are looking to learn from this experience and add how the interviewee will benefit by contributing their time. (This can be by mentioning that you are being published in____(insert name of publication) that has a readership of____(insert circulation no.) or, if it is a personal project, an offer to put the person in the acknowledgements and provide copies of the story, article or book being published, is also a nice idea.
Ask a direct question: A question with a definite yes or no outcome is considered a direct question.
Ask an indirect question, ie: Do you think you will ever become famous?
Asking open-ended questions…How would you describe________.(Fill in the blank.)
What are the ways in which____? Fill in the blank.
How do you feel about___??(Fill in the blank.)
Make sure you cover the, who, what, why, how, when and where of the story. Once you have asked questions from all these angles you are sure to have a thorough picture.
Whoever you interview, ask for two or three references of people you can speak to who also know the person you are writing about, or who have information on the article you are covering.
In genre writing or literature, feedback from more than one writer on your work is good, but too many hands on the keyboard will muddle the plot, so to speak.
Wrapping it up
Thank the person for their time. They have lives too and everyone appreciates being acknowledged, even for the small things. Offer to contact them when everything is put together, and finally, follow through with that promise.
Write what you know; research what you don’t
In journalism, if you come up short of material, do not, fake your knowledge of topics in news or feature articles. Instead, you can fill space with descriptions of the office or location of the interview, the style of the person’s hair, what they were wearing or trivial things that fill space, although I do not advise this for professional publications – most editors’ know filler material when they see it.
In literature, a great deal of writers will cross a fine line between faking what they know and knowing what they’ve written about. Anne Lamott, covers this area beautifully in her book, bird by bird. It’s worth the read, if you have the time.
In journalism, don’t write what you don’t know, research any questions or doubt you have about the material in front of you and fact check it, twice where possible.
What to leave out of the interview
Leave your biases at the door; bring your ethics. Leave your mind open and your cell phone off. Bring a method of transcribing responses, leave your children with a sitter, if your source is well-known and you are a novice freelancer, leave your spouse and friends at home. Asking for autographs is frowned upon but not forbidden.
If you have a word count to meet, the pressure is always greater at the end of the day. I do not advise writing for word count though unless it is stipulated by the editor. Writing 500 words for a profile is usually proficient, after that, unless you’re covering a celebrity, it’s a lot of fluff. And, while writers are generally paid by the word, at the end of the day it’s your portfolio that will suffer if you’re doing this for the money.
Like me, if you write because you need to express your words like you need the air we breathe, life might feel more fulfilling to you.
*Previously published in The Ink Never Runs Out