I get asked about writing and reporting every week, and I've been promising to get some ideas down for students and aspiring writer/journos. As I create them, I'll stash them all on the new Advice for Writers page on my main site.
Steve Brill asked me to come up to talk to his journ class at Yale last week, which finally made it begin to happen. He wanted me to focus on interviewing, so I put three lists of advice together, looking at it from different angles.
Yale was incredible, BTW. I still have to put together my post on that.
Below is the first set of advice. I'll post the other two lists later in the week. Then on to other writing topics down the road. And you might also check out my video series on the writing process for Columbine. There are two there on structure, and two on character.
Ten Interview Tips: What Makes Them Tell?
Always write out the questions in advance. (Yes, on paper/PC/iPhone.)
Even if you only have 30 seconds to prepare.
It means every time they spilled something more interesting, you brushed it off and stuck to your agenda.
All the other reporters will ask the stuff on your paper.
Your story will be unique if your sources answered the invisible
“questions” no one knew to ask. (If it’s a question/answer format, you
How do you make them feel safe? Have you thought about it?
(About all subjects, and about this dude or old lady in particular?)
If it came down to hurting them vs. a better story, which
would you choose? Are sure? You can fool yourself, but not them. They
will smell it on you.
If it ended feeling like a great interview, it was not.
People don’t confide secrets in “interviews.” They spill shit in
conversation every day.
It’s all about listening. (Much harder than it sounds.)
When they wince, or get nervous, or sad . . . shut the
fuck up. They want to tell it: give them the floor. Then acknowledge, in
some way, what just happened.
Let go of your needs (temporarily) and get in their head.
What’s bugging them? Why? If their point seems trivial, you don’t get
Not for everyone, but the core of what I do.
“Objective” does not mean “keep your distance.”
Are they skittish, reverential or cracking jokes about
their concentration camp time? (That happened to me.) If your mood is
out of whack, conversation will not gel. At least demonstrate respect
for their approach. (It’s their approach to the experience—not just to the interview.)
If you can’t tell that those are the same question, you will never answer either.
- If that’s not your lifelong research project, select a new career.