Then Again The Novel

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For every writer there is that first interview, and the nervousness, excitement and anxiety that accompany it. There are ways of looking at the interview, however, that can build your confidence.

First, do not think of yourself as a pest, taking up someone's valuable time. Time, after all, is also one of your most valuable commodities. The busiest persons are almost always the most interesting, and the very fact that you have heard of a person usually means that he or she has consented to interviews in the past.

To a professor, researcher or company executive, this kind of positive publicity is usually welcome. Unless you work for one of the sensationalized tabloids (which we advise against), there is no reason to expect that the people you interview would not be interested in generating accurate publicity for themselves. Most of us are vain. Consider how you would feel if a writer called and asked to interview you about your work.

"The vast majority of prospective interview subjects will be more than happy to accommodate you," says R, LeBeaux. "There are exceptions, but out of the hundreds of people I have contacted, only two have refused me, and both had legitimate reasons. One had a discovery of such magnitude that talking to reporters interfered with his work. He was not rude or secretive; he simply put me in contact with another researcher on the same project. The other was a part-time freelancer himself, and I could not blame him for wanting to write his own story."

If you have an assignment, or a request to do an article on speculation, it is a good idea to mention the magazine for which you are working. If you are doing the article on your own, you might tell your subject for what market you are aiming. Regardless of whether you have an assignment, 99% of the people you contact will be willing to talk. If you are well prepared, most interviews can be conducted on your first call.

Remember, you are a professional, performing a valuable service. From the standpoint of the people you interview, you are providing a measure of public recognition. Finally, you are going to do the article with or without their help. If they are the authority on the subject, they are probably going to want to be quoted as such.

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There are several techniques you can use to formulate effective interview questions; again it is important to know your market. Put yourself in the place of a reader of the magazine to whom you hope to sell your article.

For example, if you are writing an article on a new program for hypertensive children, on assignment for a service-oriented* woman's magazine, you don't need to know the history of hypertension, or the chemical formulas of various treatments. What you want to know is how the program works, when it will be available and where readers can participate in it.

(* In your market listings and guidelines sheets you will see that some magazines prefer "Service" articles. This means that rather than general or historical information, they want practical particulars, such as who, when, where, how much; in short, information that will benefit their readers.)

On the other hand, if you are writing the same article for a medical trade, you will need technical and historical information, probably including statistics and charts that would be of no interest to the readers of the woman's magazine.

Most article ideas will automatically suggest questions, but to fill in the gaps, consult a friend. Give them a brief description of the subject (this could mean just reading the query) and ask what more they would like to know. If possible, choose someone who reads or might read the magazine for which you are aiming.

Another method is to run down the basic questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. Also, you will often find that the quotes you use do not come from a direct answer to any one of these questions, but from a bit of rambling on the part of your interview subject.

Do not try to impress your subject with your own knowledge of his or her specialty. It is good to let them know that you have done some basic research, but if you lead them to believe you are thoroughly knowledgeable, they will probably start talking in language too difficult from which to glean usable quotes. Do not hesitate to say, "Could you explain that in simpler terms?" or, "I think I understand everything but this."

Some variation of the words, "Where do you think this might ultimately lead?" is always a good question to ask. If you can get your interviewee to speculate, exciting material almost always emerges. If you are discussing a new product, procedure or breakthrough, ask when it will be marketed. Even if this is sometime in the future, readers always like to know there will come a day.

There is a kind of pattern and rhythm to interviewing that can only be learned by doing it. Eventually, you will know instinctively when to let people ramble, and when to stop them with a question, or prod them on with a curious comment.

Every interview subject is different. Some will provide you with so much good material you won't be able to use it all; others will be so uninteresting you will have to find someone else to interview on the same subject.

There are a few questions you should always ask at the end of an interview. First, ask if they have any favorite anecdotes that pertain to the subject. Second, ask if there is some question you should have asked but didn't, which they think is important or might interest your readers. Third, ask if they can send you any photos to complement your story, with assurances that you will return them as soon as possible.

Finally, have them spell their name, give their title, discipline, mailing address, phone, fax, and (if they have one) e-mail address. Conclude your interview by thanking them for their time and assuring them that they will receive a review copy of your final draft and be informed when the article appears.

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Barbara The Novel

This last point is one of controversy. Checking the facts of an article is becoming more and more important, as editors are facing an increased number of libel and slander suits. Newspaper reporters almost never have their articles or quotes approved by their subjects, but for magazine writers, it has become a necessity.

There are several reasons for checking your facts and quotes with those you have interviewed. For one thing, many magazines employ "fact checkers" who will be calling your interview subjects and doing their own research to double check the accuracy of your story. If they consistently come up with corrections or objections to quotes, it will become evident to your editor that you have not done a thorough job. Another reason is that you will gain the trust of those you interview, and this can be helpful if you need to contact them for other articles in the future.

The exception here is, of course, the hard-hitting investigative piece. Obviously, if you are working in an area of great controversy, it is going to be next to impossible to get someone to approve his or her own "juicy" quotes. In these cases, all you can do is make sure through your research that what you write is factual. On most investigative articles, the magazine's attorneys will work with you to insure accuracy.

For short articles on tight deadlines, you can call your interview subjects and read the article or quote to them, making whatever corrections they feel necessary. If you are working for a magazine that does not employ fact checkers to follow up, you can send (or fax) the interviewee a copy of the final draft with a short note thanking them for their time and assuring them that they will be notified when the article appears. Magazines that have fact checkers often prefer that you not send copies of your manuscripts to those you interview because it can cause confusion and is a duplication of effort. As your manuscript will almost certainly be altered in the editing process, sending copies of the original may make the interviewee believe what you send is what will be published. Then, when the magazine's fact checkers call to verify the edited version, there may be some confusion. Ask your editor what he or she prefers concerning copies being sent to interviewees, and do what you are told.

If you do send copies of your manuscript, occasionally you will run into an interviewee who tries to totally rewrite the story for you. In this case, politely but firmly let them know that you are the writer and that all you need is confirmation of the facts and approval of their quotes.

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There are several schools of thought concerning interviews and how to extract material from them. Some say that you should never record an interview, and should take only minimal notes. The idea here is to free your mind to absorb the overall feeling conveyed by your subject. How you handle your interviews will be a matter of personal style, and will depend on how accurate your memory is.

Accuracy is of prime importance, and for those who don't take notes very fast, recording is the best way to go. If you are quick at taking notes, know shorthand, or can type fast as you conduct the interview, recording shouldn't be necessary. If you do record, it is a good idea (as well as the law in some states) to inform your interview subject that he or she is being recorded. No matter how you feel about recording, one thing is certain: it is the ultimate way to insure accuracy.

Tape and digital recorders can be used not only for recording interviews, but also for instantly recording story ideas and taking notes when you are away from your desk. If you can afford it, buy a digital recorder or one of the micro-cassette recorders that fits easily in a pocket and is operable with one hand. You can purchase a telephone pickup that attaches to the receiver for phone interviews, but the quality of reproduction leaves a lot to be desired.

The best way to record from the phone is to either use a speakerphone or wire right into the speaker leads in the upper half of the receiver. It is a simple procedure, but if you don't feel you can handle it, you can have someone at an electronics repair shop do it for you. If you can afford one of the more expensive cassette recorders with the capability of adding a foot control to stop and start the playback, this will make transcribing your tapes a lot easier.

One other reason to record interviews is that, transcribing the recordings can play an intimate role in helping you write the article. We will discuss this in detail in a later section.

Recorders can be somewhat intimidating when doing in-person interviews. This is another reason for using the smaller, less obtrusive, digital or micro-cassette type. When meeting people face-to-face, the first thing to do after greeting them is to turn on your recorder, set it to the side of the desk or table, and ignore it (except for checking the time left and turning tapes over or replacing them). You will find that, for the most part, your subjects will forget about the recorder once you get into the interview.

When conducting in-person interviews for personality profiles, you will also need to take notes. These should record visual things, such as personal demeanor, gestures, physical descriptions of the surroundings, the person etc. If you are a photographer, even just a snapshot taker, it can also be helpful to take a few pictures during the interview. Not to sell, but to help you recreate the scene as you build your profile, and to give a visual quality to the finished product.

Then Again The Novel

Several books and articles have been written on the "art" of interviewing. Some concentrate on specific types such as the personality profile interview. Such publications can be helpful, but, for the most part, how you conduct your interviews depends on what works best for you. If you remember the basics and are well prepared the rest will eventually fall into place, and any anxiety you may have felt will disappear.

Interviewing is not only necessary, it can be interesting and fun. If you approach each interview professionally, with genuine curiosity, you will find that what once may have seemed the scariest part of being a writer, can become one of the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process.

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