How to Conduct a Good Interview for a Non-fiction Piece
By Lauren Barton
Conducting an interview for a nonfiction piece can be nerve racking, especially when you have never met the person before. The first time I interviewed someone for an essay, I kicked myself afterwards listening to the recording of fumbled words and muddled questions. It seemed I rarely allowed my interviewee to finish their sentences and I was embarrassed by the never-ending stream of “Um’s” and “likes” pouring from my mouth.
Everyone must start somewhere—and despite how uncomfortable interviewing may feel at first, with time and practice it can become a sacred source of information for your writing. In order to avoid any uncomfortable feelings associated with the interviewing process, here are some suggestions on how to conduct a good interview.
Do your research. You should have strong and vast background information on the person or subject you are interviewing prior to the interview. By completing thorough research, you will be able to think of golden questions that will enhance your writing and honor the time you have with your interviewee.
Bring a recording device. Something small and simple may help the mood feel relaxed. For my interviews, I have a recorder on my phone I turn on. Don’t forget to ask permission to record their answers.
Bring your notebook. Jot down a description of your setting, the way your interviewee looks and the facial expressions they make while talking. Don’t worry about writing down their answers, that is what your recorder is for.
Mindfully pick an appropriate place for the interview. I recommend conducting the interview in a quiet place, or the person’s regular work setting. Avoid coffee shops, parks, and restaurants because these places pick up a lot of background noise. It can also be good to see where the person completes their work, so a setting familiar to the interviewee would be best.
Ask your questions clearly. It helps to have three to five strong questions written down prior to the interview, more if time allows.
Allow your interviewee time to answer the questions. Do not be afraid of silences or pauses as your interviewee ponders.
Ask for clarification. If you do not understand an answer, do not be afraid to ask a follow-up question.
Treasure the unrecorded moments. When the interview is over and your recording device is no longer rolling, relish those moments you share with your interviewee. People often talk differently when they know they are being recorded so it is important to remember those candid bouts of conversation after the interview. Consider jotting down what was said once you are alone again, if you have permission.
Afterwards, it is important to transcribe your interview. This process is tedious and somewhat frustrating, but it will be a vital source of information for you. It is important to be able to directly quote what your interviewee has said; through transcription you are able to remember important bits of conversation that may have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
Finally, make sure you send a letter of gratitude. A handwritten letter may seem old- fashioned, but I consider it the best expression of thanks. It is important that your interviewee knows how much you value the time and information they gave you. If a handwritten letter is not practical, at least send an email of thanks.
Once again, interviewing is a skill that takes time and practice. Do not beat yourself up if your first interview is marred with a symphony of filler words. Every writer must start somewhere, and eventually this process will become natural. Hopefully these tips will be helpful to you in the meantime.
We look forward to reading your nonfiction submissions here at Sink Hollow!
All suggestions in this Blog Post were originally taught by Jennifer Sinor in her Advanced Creative Nonfiction Course at Utah State University.