A bunch of my freelance jobs to date have involved writing a piece based on an interview with one or more individuals. Interviews are not new to me – I used to do a lot for podcasts when I was a travel writer. I’ve found that, whether the interview becomes something written or aural, I prepare in the same way almost every time. These might be really obvious, but here are five things I do for interviews.
If writing about a particular brand or company, I check out the following: their website, if they’ve been in the news, how people talk about them on social media (plus what they say for themselves). That covers subject, but it’s also good to learn a bit about the outlet. As a freelancer, I’m asked to do jobs for vastly different organisations, each with their own unique style. If they’ve got a blog or newsletter, I check it out to become comfortable with their voice. And I ask my contact if they have an official style guide. By checking what you’ve written against any guidelines they have, you can save heaps of time on edits down the track.
2. Prepare questions
Some people don’t like to do this, and prefer to be completely off the cuff when interviewing. That would make me nervous, as I like to go into a piece with some idea of how it’s going to come together at the end. Having written up questions and sent them to the interviewee before we speak, I feel we’re both more prepared. Of course, I always tell them that our conversation may lead us off on a tangent, bringing up new questions, and the vast majority of people I’ve dealt with have been fine with that. I suppose the risk is quotes sounding rehearsed, particularly if it’s being released in an aural format, but in my experience that’s something you can pick up on, and correct for, during the course of the interview.
3. Test equipment
If you’re using a Dictaphone or a laptop or a cellphone or any kind of powered device, check the battery level before you start recording! I tend to use two devices to record – sure, I’ve got a slight steak of anxious, I’ll admit it – because I’ve lost recordings in the past. These days, if possible, I use a combination of MP3 Skype recorder (particularly handy as it auto-records when you start a call) and a Dictaphone if the interview is online, and Dictaphone and cellphone if it’s an in-person chat.
4. Take notes
See above. If technology fails, have a back-up plan. Okay, so you don’t have to have three notebooks in your bag like I do (one for freelance, one for fiction and one just because), but it is a good plan to take some notes. I know heaps of people like to take notes on iPads or tablets now, but I’m still a big fan of handwriting. I used to know shorthand – we studied it as part of our journalism degree in uni – but lack of use has driven most of it from my head. I’m lucky as I can write fast and my handwriting is legible, so I tend to take pretty detailed handwritten notes, but sometimes even just a few words about a key point is a good memory jogger when getting around to actually writing the piece.
5. Draw up an outline
As soon as possible after I do an interview, I make a plan for the piece itself. Sometimes that’s not until a day or two later, depending on what else I have on. But the further away I get from the interview, the more difficult it is to remember what I felt were the most useful quotes and where they might fit in the narrative. I tend of draw up a handwritten outline of the piece, with just basic headers and maybe a couple of relevant phrases beneath each. (For example, for this piece, I just started with a bullet list like this: 1. Learn all the things, 2. ????, 3. Batteries!, 4. Scribbles, 5. Listy.) From there I fill out each section. Even though I often move things around for flow, it’s still useful to have the initial outline to come back to.
Do you do a lot of interviews? If so, I’d be keen to hear what works for you.