Interviews are essential to freelance success for writers, whether they write nonfiction or fiction (heck, even poetry). This post covers how to successfully prepare for and conduct an interview.
The benefits for nonfiction writers may seem obvious, especially in the field of journalism. Interviewed sources act as experts on topics, whether as first-hand witnesses or people with expertise.
However, even fiction writers and poets can benefit from good interview techniques. For instance, interviews can help writers understand certain characters better, especially if their characters are in a specialized field. Interviews can also help writers understand subjects better.
How to Prepare For an Interview
There are many ways to prepare for an interview, and these are the steps I often take.
- Figure out who and why. Before trying to secure an interview, think about why you need an interview and who will be the best source of information. Do you need an expert opinion? An eyewitness? A famous celebrity?
- Secure the interview. The easiest way to secure an interview is to contact the person directly. If you have a direct contact, that’s the best way to go. However, there are often times when writers don’t have direct contacts. In such cases, I suggest searching for a contact online first and working through the maze that way. Heck, I’ve even used social networking sites to hunt down sources before.
- Prepare the subject. If you have time between the initial contact and the actual interview, it’s a good idea to prepare your subjects. Let them know why you’re contacting them (in a general sense), how you hope to use the interview, and how long it should take. This helps them feel more comfortable with the process.
- Make your list of questions. There are some questions you can get answered without interviewing the subject if they’ve participated in previous interviews. In such cases, just ask them if XYZ from a previous interview still hold true. This helps you focus on asking new questions, which may dig deeper or go off in new directions from previous interviews.
How to Conduct an Interview
Here’s how I prefer to conduct interviews, whether via e-mail, phone, or in person.
- Be punctual. If a subject agrees to an interview at a certain time, be sure to arrive on time. Your subject may feel a little nervous about the whole interview process, and your punctuality will help alleviate some of those nerves.
- Let the person know if they’re being recorded. Writers who conduct interviews with a recording device should let their subjects know when they are officially being recorded (and are “on the record”). If you’re conducting an interview via e-mail, it should be implied that anything in the e-mail is fair game.
- Stay on task. If you promise a 30-minute interview, ask your questions quick and finish within 30 minutes. Don’t worry about chit chat and shooting the breeze. The first job of a writer is to save the subject time. If they want to chat after the interview is completed, then feel free to linger then. Many subjects just want to complete the interview as soon as possible and return to their daily routine.
- Ask follow up questions. When appropriate, ask subjects to elaborate on things they say that don’t make sense or sound interesting. Writers shouldn’t get carried away asking follow up questions, but some extra prodding can provide special insights.
- Thank your subject. It’s usually a good idea for writers to maintain healthy “professional” relationships with their subjects. A good source can help a writer on multiple projects and stories, and it’s often easier to maintain an existing relationship than to create a new one from scratch.
- Share the finished product. This step is optional and will depend upon whether you’re directly quoting a source and/or whether they’ll be happy with the finished product. If there’s no controversy, then it’s a nice gesture to include your subject in the entire interview process, which ultimately (and hopefully) ends with publication.
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