Interview Techniques for Writers by Judith A. Yates

All authors will need an interview at some point in their writing. Having first-hand knowledge enhances the book by making it more believable; having another source’s input is confirmation that you are knowledgeable and conducted a real investigation. Secrets to a great interview include understanding what an interview does, preparation, appearance, and having a questioning nature.

INTERVIEWS CAN BE A CHESS MATCH

My most successful interview came from a man who repeatedly screamed, “I’m not telling you anything!” Several hours later, he answered all questions, plus new information leading to other essential interviews.

HOW TO “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”

For nonfiction, obtaining information from the source enhances your story. Not all information can be found online or in legal records. A nonfiction author benefits from interviewing someone in the field.

For example, creating a character who is a deep-sea fisherman enhances the character if you interview a deep-sea fisher, understand climate’s impact, and have a good knowledge of the professional fishing industry. A book about a man and a golden retriever is enjoyable if you have a working knowledge of the breed plus having another opinion and varied information on the dogs. Interviews are vital.

PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE

An important key is preparing.

Write down all the questions you have.

Keep side notes on why you are asking these questions.

If you are using any equipment, test it at least twice: on a test date and before the interview itself.

Always carry paper and a few pens and take handwritten notes (don’t rely solely on electronics).

You lose credibility when you are unprepared or have no idea why you are asking specific questions.

And, sometimes, just asking for an interview will get you one on the spot!

PROTECT YOURSELF

Cover yourself legally.

I carry “release of information” forms with me if I interview in person. This interview may lead to another unexpected discussion. The paperwork is most important for nonfiction authors who are writing about an event or occurrence. Having legal permission, getting confirmation of exactly what the interview entails, and proof the subject understands issues will save you heartache—and potential legal action—in the future.

BE PROFESSIONAL

Mind your manners! Always ask permission.

Send a “thank you” afterward.

Honor “off the record” statements.

Sit up straight, keep good eye contact, and nod while listening to responses. A nod indicates you are listening, and your subject’s words are important.

Consider what you are wearing. Do you look professional? Are you relatable? Will you intimidate your subject if you wear a suit or appear unprofessional because your jeans are dirty and shabby? When conducting a phone interview, I know someone who says, “I dress professionally because it makes me feel and act professional.”

Do not fear asking hard questions. If I were afraid to ask anything, I would never get my true crime books written. Click To Tweet

HOW TO PHRASE QUESTIONS

Do not fear asking hard questions. If I were afraid to ask anything, I would never get my true crime books written.

Avoid an apology: “I hate to ask you, but…”

Don’t make the question avoidable: “If you want to, tell me…”

Your subject is being interviewed, and they expect to be questioned. Consider how you ask the tough questions:

“Tell me about your child’s death” vs. “Give me an idea of what you were thinking and feeling when they found your child.”

“What were his last words?” vs. “Did he say anything?”

WAIT FOR RESPONSES

Pauses are your friends. Pauses encourage people to talk because most people are communicators and want to hear words, noise. Investigators use this tactic when interviewing a suspect.

“Why did you go there at night?” And let silence reign. Judge when it is best to continue.

If silence is met with silence for too long, then rephrase the question. Don’t ask a different question. The former is an encouragement to speak; the latter is permission to bypass the subject. “Why did you go there at night?” (30 seconds of silence). “I’m just trying to understand what you were doing” vs. “never mind.”

Change “Yes” or “No” questions into open-ended questions. “Do you know this man?” will limit your information. “How do you know this man?” will open dialogue and probably more lead to more questions.

Ask the information-gathering question, then request detail:

“What is the worse job?” Allow time for an answer, pause, and then details:

  1. “Why …?
  2. “Where and when …?”
  3. “How ..?”

CLOSING THE INTERVIEW

End your interview with, “Is there anything else that can help?”

And, “May I call you if I need clarification on something?” You will always think of more questions after the interview.

And “is there anyone else I can talk to?”

If the author understands interview dynamics, preparation, appearance, and the nature of questioning, you can complete a successful interview. Information is always worthwhile; thus, interviews are necessary for all types of authors.

Judith A. Yates is a Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award winner for “Best True Crime,” and a true crime author and criminologist. She has taught interview techniques for over fifteen years. For more information, visit www.judithayates.com.