This article belongs to The Writing LifeóThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.
Your pitch was picked up, your article is outlined, and now it's time for the interviews. While it can be exciting to talk with experts, it can also be intimidating. Below are some tips that I hope will make this process flow smoothly (or smoother than it has been).
I can list many high school classes I found useless (A.P. Calc, anyone?), but when asked which class was the greatest help, only typing springs quickly from my lips. At the time, I took the class because I needed an elective and that one fit into my schedule. Now, I am thankful for the lack of choices. If you are still using a pad and pen to record interviews, sign up for a word processing class IMMEDIATELY. Typing interviews will allow you to record more quotes and important facts, and you will not be faced with the embarrassing situation of frequently asking your expert to slow down.
Another useful tip is to buy a small personal recorder. For those interviews where you rather not take the laptop, a recording device is a perfect back-up for when you have to verify quotes. To keep the interview fresh in your mind, type up the notes as soon as you get home.
Keep Your Subject on Topic
I have heard many writers tell me that although the expert may drone on, they become so absorbed in what he is saying, they do not want to cut him off. No one is arguing that you cannot learn something new, but when you are on a deadline, you need to learn how to politely get the expert back on track. You need to remember that as assignments pile up, you will no longer have the luxury for chatty conversations. Another important thing to keep in mind is that many experts only have 15-20 minutes to talk with you. If you let them speak about their own agendas in that time slot, you have lost your opportunity to get the facts you need.
So what to do? Listen for a pause or breath in conversation and jump in. Say something like, "That is very interesting and I would love to speak with you about X topic at a later date, but I had a few more questions I needed to ask you about Y topic." If a sentence he just said ties into your agenda, pounce on it. You can say, "You were just talking about Y topic. This is exactly what I was looking for. Can you please elaborate?" It may be awkward at first, but eventually you will be a pro. To make the transition easier, do practice interviews with fellow freelancers. Take turns getting off point while the "interviewer" looks for ways to bring the conversation back to subject.
Get Them Talking
While most experts are willing to provide you with all the information you need, others require more prompting. Create questions that lend themselves to explanations rather than "yes" or "no" answers. If you need a fact confirmed, you may also ask them to expand on the information behind the fact. For example, rather than just asking for verification on the number of obese Americans, ask for thoughts on the growing academic. You may think this information is unnecessary now or that it was supplied by another expert. However, when it comes time to work on the article, another good quote may be the missing ingredient. And you just saved yourself an extra phone call or e-mail.
Leave an Interview for Last
Once you get a writing assignment, it is very tempting to schedule interviews back-to-back so you can complete the article promptly. But, you will often write the article and realize you are lacking some key quotes or facts that could really enhance the piece. The solution is to call a source back, which is time consuming for both of you, or to do a major revise of your articleóalso a waste of time. To avoid this, do most of your interviews, and leave one or two people to interview toward the end of your deadline. Once most of your interviews are complete, write the first draft of the piece. As you're writing, you will see which topics you need to expand and which additional questions you should ask. This way, when you talk to your last sources, you can direct the conversation in the direction needed to fill in any missing blanks in your piece.