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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Making It As A Freelance Writer - Tip #9 - The Art of the Interview

As a freelance writer, if you want to be published in a magazine or newspaper, sooner or later you'll have to talk to someone. Sorry, but journalism is not about sitting in a dark room and making up stories in your head. If that's what you want to do, write novels or short stories and use blogging as a publishing outlet.

People want to read about other people, so if you want to write a really interesting article, you'll have to learn how to do a good interview.

Preparation is key. You should go into an interview having researched your topic or interviewee and should already have a good idea
of the answers you are likely to get. You should also have prepared a list of questions you'll need to ask. At the very least, these should include the who, where, what, why, when and how of the story (I'll look at these in more detail in a future tip). Your question list should also include any facts that you need to check.

Having said all that, be prepared to go with the flow. If your interviewee goes off at a tangent, let her (or him). But make sure you've asked all the relevant questions before you leave the table. While it is professional to check any facts you are unsure of later, it is unprofessional to conduct a whole new interview over the phone. After all, you had your chance.

How you handle the interview will depend on the time allocated and the interviewee's personality. If the person is warm, friendly and used to being interviewed, you can wade straight in with the difficult questions. If you've got more time or your interviewee is nervous, start with the easy, fact-checking questions before moving on to more difficult issues. Remember to listen to the answers so you can decide when or if to change direction.

I always ask people how to spell their names, mostly because I have a terrible memory, but it's a good discipline.

Make sure you have a recording device (with spare batteries and power cable), a notebook and a couple of pens. Use both the notebook and the recording device, so you don't come away with nothing in the event of a technical failure. This has happened to me before and my article was much weaker because I couldn't quote directly.

Three final points: ask open-ended questions, rather than yes/no questions. You'll get more information that way. Establish whether anything that's talked about is off the record (I usually say that if they don't want it printed, they shouldn't tell me).Most importantly, don't be afraid to look stupid. It's better to show your ignorance in front of the interviewee than in print.

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