Unlike most articles, an interview does not require multiple sources for legitimacy. By implication, the subject of an interview is either famous enough or interesting enough that readers will want to hear about them in detail. As the writer, your task is to present your subject’s opinions as accurately as possible, with a minimum of comment from you. Your ability to reach this goal will depend on how you conduct the interview, and how you structure it for publication.
This goal does not mean that you simply present your questions and the interviewee’s answers. That’s a transcript – and after you’ve made a few, you will understand why experienced writers say that the worst thing you can do to a person is quote them word for word. Even the most articulate are likely to have ums and ers and other hesitations, and to repeat themselves and forget to finish sentences. For this reason, very few people cannot be made to sound like rambling drunks when quoted verbatim.
Also, many readers react with dread to a long passage presented as a quote, and are likely to skip. Give them too many long passages of one person talking, and these readers are likely to stop reading your interview.
Instead, it is understood that your interview is an edited version of the transcript. As the writer you are expected not only to correct grammar and spelling, but to condense and reorganize to make the interviewee’s statements clearer. Similarly, you might edit your questions so that the context of what is being discussed is clearer.
What you must never do, however (assuming you want to be taken seriously), is edit the interviewee’s words so that they say something they would not to say, or edit your words so that you look clever at the interviewee’s expense. Both these practices are an abuse of your power as the writer.
Conducting the interview
To help you reach these basic goals, learn as much as possible about the interviewee and the topic of the interview before it takes place. Not only is preparation likely to give you better results, but you will be able to know if the interviewee is wrong or avoiding a topic and be able to ask more thorough questions.
Whenever possible, conduct your interview in person. At the very least, conduct it over the phone or video chat like Google+’s circles. These venues will help you to ask follow-up questions more easily.
They will also make the interviewee’s comments more natural-sounding. You want to do an email interview only as a last resource. Even chat gives more natural-sounding results than email. Some experienced interviewees may prefer email because they want to think about what they say, but you may be able to make them change their minds if you tell them that a live interview requires less of their time – which is generally true.
When you do a live interview, remember that it is about the subject, not you. While you should have some questions prepared, try to make sure, especially in the early stages, that your subject talks more than you. Start them out slow by asking easy, non-controversial questions such what their background is, then steer them gradually towards more detailed questions.
Try and talk yourself only when you need to focus the interview, or to ask for clarification. You’ll be surprised how often the interviewee will mention the points you wanted to cover without any prompting if you only wait a while. Cultivate the skills of a listener, including using body language to show your interest.
Occasionally, you may interview two or three people together. When you do, have each interviewee introduce themselves at the start, so you can identify their voices as you transcribe the interview. Ideally, you could have them name themselves each time they speak, but that can be awkward and is easily forgotten as the interview continues.
If you do have to do an email interview, see if your subject will consider several rounds of questions. The second and subsequent rounds will be shorter, but you may need them to get clarifications or details. These details may include the proper spelling of names, although you can sometimes use a web search instead.
Writing the interview
As you prepare to write, you will probably notice that the interviewee has some pet phrases and sentence structures. Use these quirks as a way of representing character, but not so much that the interviewee sound ridiculous or limited.
If you are preparing a transcript, you may also have to decide how to write down your interviewee’s favorite structures. For example, you may decide after a few examples to omit throwaway phrases like “I think.” Similarly, you may have to decide whether a dash or a semi-colon best represents how the interviewee joins two thoughts together
When you come to write your interview, resist the temptation to present it in simple question and answer form. The more interesting – and more difficult – choice is to use regular paragraphs, weaving the quotes into the grammar of your own sentences. Readers find this structure easier to read, and it has the advantage of making summaries and explanations easier.
But, regardless of this format, try to find a quote that will serve as a conclusion, even if you have to pick it out of an earlier point in the interview. Often, I find that ending an interview by talking about future plans, finishing with, “Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to make sure gets said?” will provide that conclusion.
You will find that some editors dislike ending with a quote. If you ever write for someone with this preference, restating the last quote in different words will often be enough. Otherwise, a modest conclusion will usually do.
All these practices make an interview very different from the typical article. In a typical article, you may quote, but usually not at such length, and the effect on the structure is minimal. By contrast, in an interview, the content becomes the structure. Your goal is to discover the structure implicit in the content.