Friday, November 23, 2007

Interviewing Intensive: The Basics Every Nonfiction Writer Should Know About Conducting an Interview

My journalism training included just a little bit of information on how to conduct interviews. However, interviews represent an essential part of what I do as both a journalist and as an author. I use interviews every time I write an article for which I need expert sources to quote and every time I write a book or booklet for which I need to research a subject and choose to go directly to expert sources for information. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks and rules that I’d like to share with you here today.

First, if you are interviewing several sources for an article or for a book project, it’s best, if possible, to start with a source who can provide you with a general overview of your subject. With this overview, you can then begin to hone your questions down to more specific ones, which you can direct to sources with more specific knowledge. In fact, your first source may be able to direct you to these other expert sources.

Second, if you are looking for sources, there are services on line that can help you. (I’m not at home at the moment, so I don’t have access to my files; and I don’t have good Internet access – just enough to post this blog, but you can look on line for public relations services that help you find the experts you need.) For example, I am listed with, or The Yearbook of Experts. Journalists can access this list for free. Or begin asking people who know something about your subject for suggestions on who you might interview. If you begin putting out feelers, before long, you will find yourself with some useful interview sources.

Third, always write out your list of questions before you conduct an interview. I like to set up the questions in an order that follows the order I think my article might follow (or my chapter, booklet, etc.) Later, if you choose to transcribe your tape of the interview, you can edit the transcript, writing your copy as you do so. This makes the writing go much faster. I often do this when writing articles.

Fourth, I always tape my interviews and type while I conduct them. In many states, you are required by law to tell someone you interview over the phone that you are, indeed, tape recording them. So, be sure you are aware of the laws in your state, or simply make it a practice to tell all your interview subjects that you are taping them before you begin the interview. I type even when I interview someone in person. (I bring along my laptop.) This gives me a partial transcript (I go back and complete the transcript later.) and ensures that I get as many quotes down on paper as possible, and that I do so as accurately as possible. I can write pretty quickly, but my writing is sloppy, and even I often can’t read what I’ve written under the best of circumstances.

Fifth, when an expert source tells you something “off the record,” which means you can’t use the information they just told you, it’s off the record…unless they tell you it’s off the record after they tell you. That said, I honor their request that the information be off the record no matter when they say those specific words. I want them to trust me and to allow me to come back to them again, if I need them as a source again. I might go to another source and try to get them to give me the same information on the record.

Sixth, don’t change quotes. However, I often ask people if they’d like me to correct their grammar. No one likes to sound stupid, and my articles sound better with expert sources that use correct grammar. Most people prefer to have their quotes “cleaned up.”

Seventh, don’t quote someone out of context.

Eighth, don’t misquote anyone ever.

Ninth, at the beginning of an interview, always get the basics handled: get the correct spelling of the person’s name, their title, their address, etc. Doing this at the beginning is a great ice breaker. Plus, this ensures that you don’t forget to do sp at the end.

Tenth, treat the interview like a conversation, if possible. Take some time at the beginning to explain why you are interviewing them or to remind them of why you are writing the article or what your book is about. Ask them what the weather is like where they live. Do whatever you can to make your source feel comfortable and to relieve yourself of your own nerves.

Eleventh, it’s best to avoid agreeing to have your sources read what you’ve written, although they often ask to do so. You don’t want them to change their minds about what they’ve said once they read their words. If you must agree, let them read only their quotes and not the whole article, chapter, book, etc. If they want to read the whole piece to understand the context within which their quote is being used, make sure they understand that they have no say over your manuscript. They cannot edit or change it. Nor can they edit or change their quotes (unless it’s for the better).

Twelfth, remember to send your sources a thank you note and a copy of the finished product.

The best interviews I’ve conducted are the ones when my interview sources actually thank me for interviewing them when we are finished. Yes, that actually happens occasionally. Sometimes they find the subject interesting and enjoy the opportunity to think about it and discuss it with me. At these times, when I hang up the phone, I feel very grateful for the people who have agreed to let me interview them, have given me their time and have been willing to share their thoughts and expertise with me, and for the fact that my job as a nonfiction writer offers me the opportunity to interview such knowledgeable people on such fascinating subjects.

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