Much-needed interview help for beginning writers

By Katharine Swan On Thursday, April 27, 2006 At 11:12 AM


I conducted my first interview only two months after "going freelance." The interview techniques I'd learned during my stint as a full-time technical writer didn't exactly apply to journalistic work, so I was understandably nervous about getting my interview all wrong. In retrospect, though, I needn't have worried. I had a fairly good instinct for how to conduct an interview, as well as the added benefit of being passionate about the subject myself.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, in her weekly blog and web comic Will Write For Chocolate, has written a very helpful article - complete with links to other resources - on conducting interviews. I wish I could have found half this information back when I was fretting about my first interview!

Although I haven't yet conducted many interviews - most of my freelance experience has been in writing internet copy - I do have a few tips to share, myself:

Choose a good voice recorder. My first interview was recorded on a minicassette recorder. It worked fine, but I quickly decided that I would have to upgrade before my next in-person interview. (Ironically, I haven't had another one yet - I've had the luck of conducting only email interviews since.) Digital voice recorders are much more appropriate in this day and age - not to mention much smaller and more discreet. There are plenty of cheap digital recorders available, but most of these have a limit of six or eight hours of storage, with no way of transferring files off of the recorder. My favorite digital voice recorders are the ones that interface with your computer in some fashion, so that you can download and store your interview files.

Have a list of questions to ask or points to cover - but don't necessarily follow them to the letter. Most of the resources listed on Will Write For Chocolate suggest preparing questions ahead of time, although others say it's better to fly it by feel. Like many things, I think a compromise between the two is your best bet: have your list of questions, but don't follow them religiously. If you let your subject have some freedom in deciding where the interview goes, you'll get more information - possibly information that you never would have thought to seek on your own - not to mention more natural-sounding quotes. However, the list is useful if you need to get the interview back on track or to double check that you've gotten all of the information you wanted.

Know the advantages - and disadvantages - of an email interview. I love interviewing via email. It makes it so much easier to work around other people's schedules, since you don't have to find a time when both you will be available - but make sure you set a clearly defined time frame in which the interview will need to be completed. It's a lot easier for people to forget about you when you're not sitting right in front of them with a pen, a pad of paper, and a voice recorder. Also, email interviews lack the spontaneity of an in-person or phone interview, so make sure you leave time to follow up after the initial interview, in case the subject says something that sparks your interest in a new vein of information.

Invest in a speaker phone. Trust me, conducting phone interviews without a speaker phone makes things a lot more difficult than they need be. With a speaker phone you can record the conversation with your voice recorder, and not have to worry about missing a good quote or forgetting about a piece of information. If you're like me, and your only phone is a cell phone, phone interviews become even more difficult, because you can't hook a recording device into the line. Therefore, choosing a cell phone with a speaker phone feature becomes even more important.

That's about all I can think to add to the tips and resources that Will Write For Chocolate offers, so do be sure to check out Debbie's article as well!

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Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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