No matter what kind of writing you do, you need information. Websites, books and articles are great sources for background material, but interviews will make your story come alive. Look at published articles and nonfiction books and note how often people are quoted. In fact, many newspaper editors require quotes from at least three sources. Even if you’re writing fiction, screenplays or poetry, the personal touch that comes from talking to someone who knows the subject inside out adds insight, information and color to your writing.
An interview is an orchestrated conversation. You ask questions and record the answers, guiding the discussion to gather the information you need. Some people are natural talkers while others on both sides of the notebook struggle with shyness. Here are some suggestions for successful interviews:
- Find people to interview through doing research, asking around, looking through the phone book and checking online sources such as Profnet and Ask an Expert. Large organizations have press officers who will connect you with people to interview. You can also find spokespeople through the Encyclopedia of Associations in the reference section at your library.
- Set up the interview well in advance of your deadline. Meeting in person is ideal, but telephone interviews work, and sometimes, if all you need is a few facts, email interviews can be effective.
- Find out everything you can about the interviewee before you meet and confirm your appointment the day before the interview.
- Prepare a list of questions and pack a notebook and several pens, a tape or digital recorder, directions and background material.
- Explain what you’re writing about and ask permission to tape the interview. Most people don’t mind. Take notes, too, just in case the machine fails for some reason.Pin down necessary details, such as the spelling of their name and contact information, then start with the easy questions, working your way to the more controversial ones. Guide the discussion, bringing them back to the subject if they stray—unless what they’re saying is even better than what you were looking for.
- Thank them for their help. Ask if there’s anything you forgot to ask and whether they know other people you should contact.
- Type up your notes as soon as possible, adding details about the setting, sights, sounds and smells you observed, as well as how the person looked and acted.
- Send your subject a thank you note with a copy of the published article.
Your challenge this month is to plan and conduct a practice interview—or a real one if you can use it for a writing project. If you don’t know whom to interview, how about an elderly family member? Ask him about his life when he was your age. Type up your notes and see if you’ve gotten all your questions answered. How did it go? Did you come away with a story to write? We’d love to hear about it.
You are welcome to share your results or discuss the challenge here, as well as at my Freelancing for Newspapers blog. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.
Sue Fagalde Lick, author of Freelancing for Newspapers, worked as a staff writer, photographer and editor for newspapers in California and Oregon for many years before moving into full-time freelancing. In addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles, she has published three books on Portuguese Americans. She has taught workshops at Oregon Coast Community College, online for Writing-world.com and for Willamette Writers and California Writers Club. She offers an online course on reviews as well as individual coaching. See her website and visit her blog.