Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Interviewing ... Or Interrogations?

Firstly, I want to start this post by congratulating, Luca Caruana. He's a Writers Bureau student based in Malta and he's just sold an article to "Sunday Circle" the most popular magazine on the island. This is his third article that he will be paid for and means that he's covered the cost of the course - and he's only completed six assignments so far, so well done.

Rob Innis from Spain has dropped me a line to say "Yesterday I interviewed the British Consul in Alicante - ask and you sometimes get! She was fantastic, very friendly."

I know from many of the assignments that I receive from students that interviewing puts the fear of something horrible inside them it seems. I know what they're thinking. Can I do this without looking amateurish? Will I ask stupid questions? What happens if I get stupid answers? What if I don't like the person?

Forget all of your concerns. Most people, as Rob discovered, are happy to chat. And as Rob says, if you don;t ask, you don't get. Remember, what's the worst they can say to a request for an interview? No. So you go and find somebody else.

Here are my tips for better interviewing:

  1. Ask open questions. They're the ones beginning "What?", "Why?", "How?", "Where?", "Who?" and "When?" These questions force people to talk.
  2. Try to do some research beforehand and list some questions that you know you want answers to. Often you'll ask one and your interviewee will give you an answer which raises another question you hadn't thought of. That's fine, but before you finish your interview, check that you have answers to all the important questions you thought of originally.
  3. If you can write shorthand (that includes me) then get a tape recorder. Tell the interviewee that you'll be recording, BUT TAKE NOTES AS WELL. Murphy's law says the tape recorder will break down or the batteries will go flat. (Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt (if not the interview!).
  4. Don't think of it as an interview, think of it as a chat over a cup of tea or coffee. In fact, if you can, do your interview with refreshments. In my earlier blog posting about the Victorian Christmas, I chatted to the Museum's Curator in the cafe over a cup of tea and a very tasty scone!
  5. If meeting face to face scares (and there's no reason why it should) you could email your questions to your interviewee. Sometimes this can be more practical than meeting face to face. I've interviewed people abroad in this way.
  6. Offer to send interviewees a copy of the MAGAZINE CONTAINING THE ARTICLE. (in other words, buy it yourself and send it to them. It costs a few pennies to do this, but let's face it, what's a few pounds when the article could earn you much more than that? It's also polite, and the interviewee will be more likely to help out in the future too.
  7. Don't send the interviewee a copy of the article BEFORE you send it to the magazine. You don't want them 'tweaking' your text. I usually say that as a freelance writer, I can offer no guarantees about what the editor uses. If I sent my article to the interviewee first, I can't guarantee that what the interviewee sees is what the editor will use. For whatever reason, the editor may decide at the last minute to cut something.
  8. If you've booked a time slot with your interviewee, be professional and stick to it.
  9. Think more than one magazine article. Your questions may be geared around one idea, but you may be able to make use of some other snippets of information that the interviewee gives you, for another article at another publication.
  10. And it may seem silly to say, but let the interviewee talk. Don't shut them up when you think they've answered your question - let them keep going. You never know what they may say.
If you have used a tape recorder to record an interview, type it up as soon as you are back at your desk. It's easier to identify the good quotes from the text version that way.

So be brave and get out there an interview people. You never know where it may lead. And usually, you have too much information for what you need. So the article ends up writing itself, and you have more material for other pieces too. It doesn't get much better than that!

Good luck.