Thank you for your patience. My knee feels better today. It’s still a bit shaky and painful, but not as much as yesterday. I still have no idea why it decided to be an asshole yesterday. I’ll post the J post tomorrow.
Interviewing means asking questions of subjects. You find someone who has the knowledge you seek and you quiz them relentlessly until they writhe, twitching, on the floor and beg for mercy.
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I found some great definitions for this subject from the Education Commission of the States’glossary of educational research terms for policymakers.
interview: A data-collection method in which the researcher asks questions of individuals or groups and records the participants’ answers. The interviewer usually asks the questions orally in a face-to-face interaction or over the telephone, but electronic interviews administered through e-mail also are possible.
interview protocol: The planned questions and accompanying probes asked during an interview. Structured interview protocols ask specific objective questions in a predetermined order. Unstructured interview protocols ask open-ended questions and the order depends on interviewees’ answers.
focus group: A group of participants who are interviewed together and encouraged to share their opinions on a particular topic.
Most of mine have been one-on-one interviews. I think I would need recording equipment for any focus group discussions. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take notes that fast.
Back when I restarted college, I did one for bonehead English class–as a criminology major, I chose to interview the county deputy medical examiner. He must have been used to such things, because he had a spiel. We discussed how the system worked, the surprising reasons many people are murdered (hint: it’s usually really idiotic, stupid stuff), and I viewed a couple of photographs most people don’t get to see.
Interviewing can be fun, but some writers find it nerve-wracking and even disappointing. It’s not so bad, if you adhere to a few best practices.
Prepare your questions ahead of time
You have a pretty good idea of what you want to know, so you can wing it, right? Well, yes and no. A random, spontaneous conversation is really nice if you connect with your subject, but most people don’t have time for that (and you probably don’t either). You might even leave the interview having forgotten to ask your most important question.
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Make a list of your most pressing questions. How to do that? I keep track of anything I think I might want to ask someone in my book notes. When it’s time to make the list, I go back through those. Before the interview, I add anything else I think of to my list.
Keep the list short and focused. Try to think of questions you can’t find the answers to online. Check for answers before your meeting, so you don’t end up wasting their time and yours.
Contacting your subject
If it’s someone you don’t know, you can write, email, or call them. Introduce yourself and explain that you’re a writer and you’re doing research on X. This is important for two reasons:
- It’s respectful to introduce yourself. They will want to know who you are and what you want with them.
- Explaining why you have questions shows them you are not just some random weirdo asking about autopsies or police procedures. Law enforcement in particular is very wary of freaky stuff. Don’t give them reason to be suspicious. Be patient if they want to put you off long enough to check you out.
Don’t just launch into your questions right away; ask them if you can arrange a time for the two of you to speak. If you’re lucky, they might say, “Oh, I have time now; what did you want to discuss?” In that case, you can ask a couple of basic questions. You might get all you need from that, or you can suggest an appointment or a meeting over coffee (which of course you should buy).
Arrange a place to meet where you can talk
Much like a first date, a noisy, crowded venue does not lend itself well to conversation. If you’re treating your subject to lunch or a drink, try to find a somewhat quiet place. Choose a place where you can linger and not get turfed out in a hurry, in case conversation flows and the interview lasts longer than you anticipated.
Make it public, for the safety of you both.
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To record or not to record?
In Research for Writers, Ann Hoffman says some people become very nervous about being recorded. They might not want to talk. She suggests you wait a bit until the interview gets going, and then you ask if you can use the recorder to assist you so you don’t miss any of the really great info you’re getting. (Hoffman 2003, p. 32)
The book talks about microphones and digital recorders, but as with most technology these days, there’s an app for that. Google around; whether you’re an iPhone owner or an Android devotee, you should find something that will suffice. Test it out, maybe with a friend at a restaurant or pub, before you go on your interview.
If you don’t record, make sure you transcribe your notes and/or your recollections of the conversation as soon as possible, to maintain accuracy.
When you’re finished, don’t forget the niceties
Always, always thank your subject. It’s nice to send an email or a note, saying “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me the other day about your time as a ninja assassin for my book. I enjoyed speaking with you.”
Let them know they are welcome to inspect any quotes you might use before you publish them. If they want a copy of your book, it’s nice to give them one. You might explain to them that there are no guarantees it will ever come out. Disregard this if you have a book contract or you’re self-publishing.
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Don’t be discouraged if your first few interviews are awkward. It just takes practice.
For more information on interviewing, you can check out these resources.
The Renegade Writer: The Ultimate Freelance Writers Guide to Recording Interviews
Informational interviews for job seekers, but many of the same principles apply:
life@work: How to Get the Most Out of an Informational Interview