Writing and pitching are not the only skills you need to polish if you want to succeed as a freelance writer. It’s also important to learn how to gather the facts you need to write stories as quickly and efficiently as possible. While you might assume that you can always garner whatever information you need from the internet, that’s not always the case. In many instances, the nature of a story means that you will need to talk to somebody else—and that means learning how to do interviews.
If you’ve never done an interview before, you might be anxious about the prospect. As a freelancer, you might be worried about any number of things, including asking the right questions and coming across as professional. Fortunately, it’s much easier to conduct a productive interview than you might assume—as long as you know how to prepare properly.
What’s the best way to conduct an interview?
In general, there are three ways to do interviews: by phone, by email, or in person. All of these approaches have their benefits, but the method you use may depend largely on the wishes of the person you are interviewing. These are the pros—and cons—of each method:
Email interviews are preferred by many freelancers, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re less time-consuming to set up than other interviews, they don’t require you to figure out how to record them, and they don’t need to be transcribed. There are some potential drawbacks, however. It’s not as easy to ask follow-up questions in email interviews—much of the time, the responses to your initial questions are the only responses you can count on getting. Email interviews also lack the spontaneity and ease of spoken interviews, so the quotes you get may sound stiff and formal. While it’s important to learn how to conduct good email interviews, you should also make sure that you don’t lean too hard on them as a substitute for spoken interviews.
There are a number of advantages to phone interviews, and one of the most important is that it’s easy to ask follow-up questions. If you’re really trying to understand a subject in depth, having an expert explain it to you over the phone is one of the fastest and easiest ways to do that. Phone interviews also allow you to get natural-sounding quotes that can help to inject your stories with a sense of authenticity and humanity. Here’s a tip: When you’re doing a phone interview, make sure that you’re in a quiet place without any distractions, where you can talk as loudly as possible without bothering anybody.
If at all possible, it’s always worth it to do an interview in person. This allows you to observe your interviewee’s body language and responses to your questions, which can help you guide the interview and make it more informative. As a rule, email interviews are best for just-the-facts stories where you don’t need a lot of quotes, phone interviews are best for background information and talking to subjects who will be hard to meet with, and in-person interviews are best for profiles, in-depth articles, and any other stories that will benefit from a more personal approach.
How do you set up an interview?
If you’re doing an email interview, it’s considered polite to send a short email first and ask if the person would be willing to answer a few questions via email. Give the person the time and date when you would need the answers back by. If you’re doing an interview in person or by phone, it’s best to email or call your subject in advance and ask when a good time would be to call. Not only is this polite, but it ensures that your subject has more than a few minutes of time to spare for your interview.
What questions should you ask?
When you’re interviewing someone, make sure that you’re not just asking questions that you can easily find the answers to elsewhere. It may help to type up a brief summary of what you know about your subject—and then to start listing the things you don’t know. No matter what you’re writing about, your goal should be to get as much new information as possible from your interviewee.
If you’re doing a phone or in-person interview, don’t feel that you have to stick to the questions you’ve formulated in advance. The best interviews aren’t stiff and formal, but freewheeling and wide-ranging. Often, the people you’re interviewing may go off on tangents that aren’t directly related to what you’re writing about. You might be tempted to try to get the interview back on course, but make sure to listen—this new information might be the seed of a new story!
How do you record an interview?
Before you do a phone or email interview, you need to decide how you’re going to record your subject’s answers. One method, of course, is to take notes as you talk. Unless you’re an experienced journalist, however, it’s very difficult to take notes while you’re fully concentrating on an interview. You may find yourself with notes that are either too sparse to be useful or impossible to decipher. Taking notes also leaves you open to the charge of getting a quote wrong. It’s almost always preferable to record the entire interview, which will allow the conversation to remain more free-flowing and natural than it would if you were focused on a notepad.
For a phone interview, your best bet is to purchase an inexpensive telephone recording device and use it. For an in-person interview, bring a small recording device and turn it on as soon as the interview has officially begun. Incidentally, you should always inform your subject beforehand that you plan to record the interview. Also, if you’ve just gotten a new recording device, make sure to practice with a friend to make sure it works!
How do you transcribe an interview?
If the interview is short, you can manually transcribe it yourself. If it’s long, or if you don’t want to take the time to transcribe it, there are plenty of audio-to-text apps you can use to speed up the process. It’s essential, however, to listen to the entire interview yourself afterward while reading the transcript! Apps aren’t perfect, and you don’t want your story to be ruined by a careless—and avoidable—mistake.
Here’s a tip: It’s always, always best to transcribe an interview as soon as possible after you’ve finished conducting it, when it’s still fresh in your mind. That way, if there are any moments that are difficult to understand, you’ll be able to reconstruct them from memory.
Should you let the subject read the interview?
In the journalism world, it’s generally frowned upon to allow the subject to read a story before it is published. If the subject asks, you can offer to call them and read them back the quotes they provided you with. If the interview you got didn’t turn out as well as you had hoped, this can be a good way to encourage the subject to elaborate on certain quotes and make the story more interesting. Once the story is published, of course, it’s fine to send the subject a printed copy or a link to the URL. Finally, it never hurts to send a quick email after an interview thanking the subject for their time.
Making your way as a freelance writer means finding the right resources—and that’s why Writers Work is here. From our intuitive document editor to our easy-to-use job finder, we offer you the tools you need to get your freelancing career off the ground. Visit our website and check out our welcome video to learn more about us!