Many years ago, I helped to run the Red Dwarf Fan Club. I was primarily involved in editing the fanzine, a job I feel I did far better than my successor, and overall pretty damn well. One of the juciest bits of content we could run was an interview with one of the stars. I realised quite early on that transcripts lacked punch, and subsequently wrote a guide to turning an interview into an article. This piece of writing sat around on Helium.com for many years before being brought here.
Part of showing the strength of your writing comes from the editing you impose upon yourself. This is particularly true in the case of interviews.
It is very common these days to see the transcripts of online chats touted as interviews, or to see interviews presented in the question-answer-question-answer style. The problem with this is that it doesn’t demonstrate that you are a good writer, only that you are capable of performing an interview. Don’t assume that interview technique isn’t important – it is, but it’s only part of the story.
What you should remember is that your audience was not there for the interview. Every word the subject spoke may well be important but there is more to the situation than that. A reader will probably not usually want to read an interview because they are a fan of your writing rather most interview readers will have been lured into reading by wanting to know something about the person being interviewed. Keep this foremost in your mind when you write your piece. Add information to your writing that the words your subject speaks don’t tell. Were they rushed when they answered? Did they speak quickly? Were they cheerful? Tired? Confused? What are the surroundings like? Does your subject pause during the interview to take a sip of water, or to answer a call? What do all these details suggest about them? Are they busy? Glad to talk to you or wishing to end the conversation as soon as possible? Do they volunteer information you haven’t directly asked for? Do they answer questions at length or succinctly?
In order to produce a good interview piece, rather than a mediocre one, it is a good idea to capture the moments as best you can. Sometimes you will need to rely purely on your memory and a few choice quotes you jot down. In such instances be careful not to put words into your interviewee’s mouth – only put down as quotes those things you know they definitely said.
Wherever possible take along a tape recorder, or maybe even a video recorder. These devices will give you ample opportunity to review what was said and to think about it at length. It might be worth doing a direct transcript from your source material to give you a good idea of what was said and to let you have something to cut and paste from and build your article around.
People don’t speak in complete sentences. They say “er” and “um” all over the place. Ignore these foibles unless you’re trying to make your subject look foolish. Often your subject will go off at a tangent – don’t worry about it. Summarise the answers and tangential stories and ignore the coughs, stutters and pauses.
Don’t just report what was said. Tell a story. Construct your piece so that it has a logical beginning and end and a strong mid section. You may want to jiggle around the chronology of what was said and link it with some background information about the subject, or to discard entirely a line of questioning that produced no information that isn’t already common knowledge, or went on for a while but wasn’t especially interesting.
When you are conducting your interview you should have a vague idea of what you want to write, but be willing to change it all if things seem to be going in a better and more fruitful direction. If you have the luxury of time don’t be afraid to let your subject ramble. You may be bored by the story of something inconsequential, but later you can review and analyse every word of it, and you may find a crucial nugget of information amidst the irrelevancies. Often you will get good article fodder by asking your subject a question to which you already know the answer. Sometimes you will be surprised and find that the assumed answer wasn’t correct, other times you will have a direct quote on the detail you’re asking about. Never fear silence when you are interviewing. People often feel
uncomfortable when nothing is said and speak to fill the gap – leave that to the interviewee since their words are more important than yours.
Avoid asking closed questions – questions with answers like “yes” or “no” or “three” as suitable responses are almost entirely useless. Don’t ask “Did you expect your single to be a success?”. Ask “What reaction did you expect to your single?” Don’t be afraid to clarify a lengthy answer – under those circumstances it is fine to get a short “yes” or “no” to be sure you’re not going to misrepresent your subject using their own words.
Remember, as you speak you are producing far more words than you would expect. If you record it you will find there is much more said than you would expect during your interview. Even with the recording it can be extremely useful to make notes – jot down which answers were particularly interesting and how you plan to use them. Scribble down an outline if you think it will be useful. Give your subject plenty of attention, though. You need to make them feel mostly at ease with you, and ignoring them while you stare into your reporters notebook is not good interview technique.
As you write your piece you may find that there is more than one story lurking within the interview. If you’re not doing a simple transcription of questions and answers then there is no reason why you can’t use the original source material for as many stories as you want to – especially if you use different quotes and stories from the interview in each piece.
Overall, never let the words tie you down. Don’t fret if there seems to be little in what was said worth reproducing for readers. A successful interview will glean at least a couple of quote-worthy phrases and you can base the rest of your piece on the subject and the encounter rather than the actual words.
Every writer has their own style. Let your style show, engage your reader. Let them feel they are learning something from your article instead of simply hearing the same comments that everyone else who has interviewed your subject has reproduced. Think ahead when you interview, keep a clear head and don’t worry. If you can pull this off you will be producing quality work for readers to enjoy.