Top Interview Tips for Freelance Writers

by John Soares on December 3, 2013

Freelance writers need to take notes in interviews. This is the old-fashioned way.

Courtesy geekcalendar

As a freelance writer, you’ll frequently need to interview important people for magazine, newspaper, and website articles, or for a book you’re writing. In this post I’ll give you a comprehensive list of the five key aspects of the interview process.

First: Getting Agreement for the Interview

First off, contact the person as soon as possible to actually set up the meeting. Phone is typically better than e-mail. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Identify yourself and state what you want and why you want it. This includes explaining what you’re writing, who the audience is, and the size of the audience.

2. State how long you would like the interview to be and how you want to do it. Be open to negotiation, especially if it is a famous person or someone with a very busy schedule.

3. Discuss whether the interview will be in-person, on the Internet, or over the phone. If you happen to live near the subject, or will be in the same area as the subject, in-person is optimal. It allows you to establish personal rapport that is difficult to create otherwise. Another option is to use a service that allows you to both use your computers and the Internet to view each other and talk; Skype is currently the number one service for that. Finally, there’s the old standby, the telephone.

4. Ask if the person has a media kit they can send you. You’ll find many people, especially famous ones, have a media kit with lots of useful information. FYI: check the person’s website first to see if the media kit is there; it often is.

Second: Scheduling It

Schedule it so you have plenty of time after it’s complete to process the information and do what you need to do for your article.

Important: confirm the day, time, and length the day before, even if you can only leave a phone message or send an e-mail.

Your subject may ask to see the questions ahead of time. This is often a reasonable request: you want the subject to have good answers ready. Depending on the type of interview and the nature of your interviewee, you should also keep some questions in reserve for follow-up and so the interviewee can’t totally shape the interview to his or her liking.

Third: Before It Happens

Thoroughly research the person so that you can formulate the best questions possible. Don’t waste the subject’s time by asking basic factual questions about her career when you can easily find the information on her website or in the autobiography she wrote.

Fourth: 11 Tips for the Actual Interview

1. Have your list of questions prepared and rehearsed well in advance.

2. Arrange the questions in a logical order and star the most important ones to make sure you get them answered.

3. Be willing to branch out from your prepared questions as the interview develops.

4. Let your subject talk at length as long as it’s on topic and will give you good information for your piece.

5. Be conversational, but remember that it’s not about you: it’s about her. Your subject should do at least 90% of the talking.

6. Dress appropriately. Better to be a bit overdressed than even slightly underdressed.

7. Ask questions that will spur your subject to talk at length. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Build on journalism’s who-what-where-when-why-how system to create the best questions.

8. Only ask factual questions that you can’t find through research and that you know are relevant to your story.

9. Bring a recorder and pens and notepad. Record the entire process so you can get accurate quotes and information. Write down important info as you go along and note the approximate time on the recorder so you can refer to the recording later.

10. If you do the interview over the phone, make sure to take good and accurate notes.

11. Consider doing the interview via e-mail. You submit the questions and the subject writes answers and sends them back. Depending on what you need, this can be a very good way to go.

Fifth: After the Interview

You still have more to do (besides actually write your piece, that is):

  • As soon as the meeting is complete, make sure that you actually have a good recording of the conversation. If the recorder missed some parts, fill in from memory.
  • Contact the subject with any other questions you have.
  • Ensure that any facts given to you by the subject are in fact accurate.

Other Resources

Here’s more helpful info:

Your Take

Any tips to add? Any personal stories about what went well or what went wrong with your interviews?

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    { 14 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Cathy Miller December 3, 2013 at 6:34 AM

    Twitter: @millercathy

    Very comprehensive list, John. The only aspect I would add is that sometimes you will conduct interviews with a customer of your client (e.g., case study interviews). Many of these same steps apply, but your client may do the introduction, and your client is an additional resource for background information.

    For me, the third step is a biggie. I call if doing my homework. The background info. I obtain actually helps me form my questions.

    Great post, John. Very helpful.
    Cathy Miller recently posted…What Are Your Customers Really Saying?


    2 John Soares December 3, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    Thanks for the extra tip Cathy!

    You also bring up the importance of “doing my homework.” This is important for interviews and many other aspects of freelance writing.
    John Soares recently posted…Comprehensive Guide to Setting Freelance Writing Goals


    3 Helene Poulakou December 3, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    Twitter: @HelenePoulakou

    Very comprehensive post indeed, John.

    I’d only add to Step 4 point 3 that, even if we do branch out from our prepared question, we should make sure to get back to at least our most important ones, those we had starred from the beginning.
    Helene Poulakou recently posted…Satyr’s Leisure


    4 John Soares December 3, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Very good point Helene. We have to get those important questions answered!
    John Soares recently posted…Twitter Hashtags for Freelance Writers


    5 Anne Wayman December 3, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Twitter: @annewayman

    John, the only thing I’d add is sending a thank you note… either just an email expressing thanks, not an ecard since many spam filters reject such things, or a snail mail card.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…6 Ways to Find Good Freelance Writing Jobs


    6 John Soares December 3, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    Great idea Anne. I’m fairly good at sending thank-you e-mails, but it could be better about sending actual cards through snail mail.
    John Soares recently posted…Health Insurance for Freelance Writers Under the Affordable Care Act


    7 Lori December 5, 2013 at 6:19 AM

    Twitter: @LoriWidmer

    Super list, John!

    Good point about reviewing the recording. I remember having a great conversation with an interview source only to find out a week later I’d forgotten to plug in the phone adapter for the recorder. I listened to a long, rather boring one-sided conversation. Luckily, I’d taken notes at the same time, though not as many as I’d need. So I went back for “follow up” questions, in email, and asked the person to clarify a few points — ones by then I’d known would be in the article.

    And it’s usually okay to say “My recorder worked fine, but I didn’t connect it to the phone line — can I just ask a few questions for clarity?” People are almost always glad to hear they’re not the only ones who screw up.

    Another thing I do to speed up the interview (and writing) process is to formulate questions that will become my article subheads. That means I have to think a bit further into the story’s key elements before I get going, but it really helps me focus the questions and get a good story on paper. That doesn’t mean I don’t let the story go where it needs to, but that I have some direction before I start.


    8 John Soares December 5, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    Excellent techniques here Lori! I especially like using interview questions as article subheads to help organize the piece and interview itself.
    John Soares recently posted…How Writers Can Minimize Eye Strain at the Computer


    9 Marcie December 5, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    Twitter: @marcie_hill

    I’m glad you wrote this post because people just don’t understand everything involved in conducting an interview. Very comprehensive. Thank you.
    Marcie recently posted…Great News! I’m Presenting at New Media Expo in January 2014


    10 John Soares December 6, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    Thanks for your kind words Marcie. And best of luck with your presentation in January!
    John Soares recently posted…Comprehensive Guide to Setting Freelance Writing Goals


    11 Jake Poinier December 11, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    Twitter: @drfreelance

    Very thorough and logical post, John. When you’ve been doing it a while, it’s easy to think you can play it as it goes, but the prep work is always worth it. One minor step I always take with phone interviews is to ask, at the beginning of the call, “Does this time still work for you?” It’s a nice courtesy to show them you value their time, and ensures that you’ve got their undivided attention.

    To Lori’s point, I once did an hour-long interview of a PGA Tour pro–only to find that one of the switches had moved on the recorder and I had a blank microcassette. I drove about 1/2 mile down the road and immediately wrote down comprehensive notes, and made a follow-up call a few days later to fill in the blanks. My digital recorder has the little sound bar to indicate that it’s actually recording, which offers at least a bit more peace of mind!
    Jake Poinier recently posted…The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them


    12 John Soares December 12, 2013 at 7:09 AM

    Jake, I really like your question “Does this time still work for you?” I ask a similar question when calling editors.

    I also used microcassette recorders back in the day, primarily to dictate notes for my hiking guidebooks when walking the trails.

    And it’s amazing what we can remember when we really have to. When I first starting teaching college, I created a lecture on the history of colonialism. I forgot the notes and then did a decent job of delivering the entire lecture from memory.
    John Soares recently posted…My 11 Questions About Publishing Ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle


    13 Tom Crawford January 28, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    Twitter: @tomcrawford

    I needed a quick recap of the interview process, as I have one scheduled. Your blog post provided the quick checklist I needed. Thanks.

    I found your “11 Tips for the Actual Interview”, especially useful. Point number 4 (let him talk, as long as it’s on topic) is something that I often use, and it invariably leads to subject matter I would never have considered.

    By the way, I found your article via a Google search… so, top marks for SEO. Thanks again.


    14 John Soares January 28, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    Thanks for the kind words Tom.

    I’m actually getting interviewed this afternoon. It’ll be interesting to see how the writer handles it!
    John Soares recently posted…19 Successful Freelance Writers Share Their Top Goals for 2014


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