7 Stress-Busting Interview Secrets from a Successful Freelance Writer

I’ve been talking to writers a lot lately about interviews.

Many writers are trying to move away from content mills right now, and they haven’t written reported stories before. They’re grappling with all the fine points of finding sources and getting them to not just talk, but say something fascinating.

Most good-paying assignments involve talking to experts, not just conducting a few minutes of Internet research. And the difference between getting lukewarm quotes and sparkling, wonderful quotes is often also the difference between $100 articles and $2,000 articles.

I’ve written many of the latter in the past year, and I can tell you interviewing is a skill you want to master if you need to grow your income.

I’ve shared some interview tips before, but I’ve learned there are some fine points of interviewing that new writers often don’t know. Here’s what I’ve learned doing hundreds of interviews over the course of 12 years of staff-writing jobs:

1. Emails are not interviews. To begin at the beginning, emails are emails, and interviews involve speaking to people either on the phone or in person. The idea that emails are equivalent to interviews seems to be spreading like a virus lately, as writers come into the field from routes that don’t pass through journalism school or a newspaper staff job. But you shouldn’t email sources your questions and then use their email responses as your quotes unless you absolutely must — like, because the source is in the wilds of Borneo for a month.

If you do quote from an email, you must cite it appropriately, as in: “That sucks,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response. Better-paying markets will expect real interviews and may be teed off if they discover you’ve tried to pass off email transcribing as interviewing. In any case, you want to talk to people live — you’ll have a chance to ask more followup questions and tease out the really good stuff.

2. What matters is establishing rapport. In the first weeks of my first staff-writing job, I went on a road trip with my editor to Vancouver, B.C. Our publication covered home improvement retail, and we went to visit the owner of a large lumberyard chain at his company headquarters. My New York-based editor conducted the interview, and I was astonished to find that he didn’t really ask him much! We had traveled all this way, and they basically just shot the breeze for a half-hour. Afterwards, I asked him why he hadn’t tried to learn more about the man’s business or asked him any tough questions.

“Oh, I just came here to build my relationship with him,” my editor replied. “Now, any time I need to know something what’s going on in this market, I can always call and ask him, because I took the time to come out here and meet him in person, and get to know him.”

Don’t be the sort of reporter who vacuums facts from a sources’ head and then leaves them a spent husk, and never returns again. Instead, build a relationship and cultivate sources you can use again. See if you can find a personal level on which to connect — a hobby, your kids, where you went to college. The more relationships you build with sources, the easier your work gets over time. And you never know when you’ll be writing on a similar topic again.

3. The source is as nervous as you are. Often, new writers tell me they’re petrified about picking up the phone and making that interview call. Later, they often report back that the source seemed as nervous as they were! Remember that interview subjects may be worried about how they’ll appear in print. So breathe, and relax. Your calm manner will help your source relax, too.

4. Be prepared. I used to want to crawl under my desk in shame at one staff job, when one reporter who sat right near me would loudly begin nearly every interview with, “So, tell me about your business! What do you do exactly? I haven’t had a chance to look at your website yet.” Really? There’s just no excuse for that. Learn about your source and your topic, and come prepared to ask some informed questions. That way you won’t waste sources’ time, and you might be able to work with them again. Speaking of which…

5. Be brief. The amount of time you spend with a source should be proportional to how much space they will get in your story. Unless you’re writing a 3,000-word feature profile of someone, you shouldn’t take more than a half-hour or 45 minutes, in my view. If you just need a few quick quotes from someone, take 15 minutes and be done with it. I used to know a reporter who’d do every interview in person and spend multiple hours with each subject. Many would later call the paper to complain about how he had wasted their time, after seeing that large time investment translated into one quote in the story! Be respectful of people’s time and don’t give them unrealistic expectations of how much you’ll quote them.

6. Get more story ideas. The end of an interview is a great time to learn more about your topic, and find additional ideas for future stories. End your conversation with one or two questions like these: “What else is going on in your industry right now? Who are the interesting new thought leaders? What will happen next year? What was the big topic of discussion at the last conference you attended?” Forget your question list at the end, and find out what’s on their mind. You’ll often leave with your next query letter ready to write.

7. Expect to follow up. Some writers I’ve mentored are terrified they’ll forget to ask something, and then have to endure the mortal embarrassment of calling the source back again. They worry they’ll never be able to get another response. But unless you’re interviewing a reclusive billionaire who’s giving his only interview in decades or some such, this fear is really unfounded. No source is going to yell at you for asking a followup question. In fact, callbacks are routine. Often, your editor might ask for a new fact that would require a callback, anyway.

My normal final comment to sources is, “What is the best way to reach you, for when I’m writing this up and I remember what I forgot to ask you?”

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36 comments on “7 Stress-Busting Interview Secrets from a Successful Freelance Writer
  1. Victoria says:

    I’m severely hard of hearing, so I can’t hear on the phone. Neither can I afford the technology to assist me, such as voice relay. Nor is it reliable (due to lag time).

    However, would editors let me use e-mail in this situation due to the Americans with Disabilities Act? Or should I reinvest a percentage of my payment into hiring someone to interview on my behalf?

    I hope to “hear” back from you… Thanks!

  2. Tara says:

    Carol, I really like your comments about recording vs. taking notes during an interview. I’m in the process of writing some articles, and interviewing will be a part of the work.

    I do have a concern. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies and TV shows about journalism at its worst, but do you ever worry that an editor will ask to listen to your recorded interview, just in case there’s a discrepancy?

    I worry if I tell the editor that I don’t have a recording, just lots of notes written in shorthand, I’ll lose a client.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Since I don’t record, I don’t have that worry!

      But seriously, I have NEVER had an editor ask for that in 20+ years, even on big interviews where I was recording celebrities and top CEOs. If there were a lawsuit over the story (also hasn’t happened), they might ask for the recording, but if you never made one, there’s nothing to get there.

      I’ve never had a client dictate my process…but if they require recorded interviews, they’d tell you that up front.

  3. robert says:

    Hi. Does the interview only take place over the email?

    • Carol Tice says:

      No Robert. As I’ve written about at length, emails are not interviews, and in some publications, you’d even have to note that the answer you got came via email, which is pretty awkward.

      Interviews involve talking to people live, either in person, or on the phone or Skype.

  4. Shannon says:

    This is a wonderful resource, Carol – thank you again! It never occurred to me the source would be as nervous as I feel (I have often been in the “source” shoes for my other job, and you are right – I do often feel worried about how I will appear in print or whether my interviewer and I will “click”). Now the shoe is on the other foot, it would seem, and they fit, well, very much the same!
    Shannon recently posted…Day 62: Full ServiceMy Profile

  5. 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.

    Thanks – Shital

  6. Sarah says:

    Really valuable information here! It’s so true you can get a lot more from a live or phone interview – but they take much more time. Especially if you have to drive a distance for a live interview, seems like it’s only worth it if you are getting paid pretty decently. That said, I agree that body language can say so much more than you’d ever get via phone or email.

    When I was reporting for an environmental newspaper (and often short on time because I did EVERYTHING), I often found myself resorting to email to save time. But my quotes suffered. I also realized that part of the reason I was doing this was because of that irrational fear of calling the interviewee. But – once i made the call, it was so always just fine!

    And I often got my best quotes out of that final question “Is there anything else I haven’t thought to ask about?” (Although it usually meant another 15 minutes of talking…:-) )
    Sarah recently posted…New Beginnings: Looking Back, Looking AheadMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      One of my rules on interviews is “think before you drive.”

      While you want to speak to sources rather than emailing, it’s rarely worth the drive time to do in-person interviews, unless you need to capture details about the person’s home or work environment or you’re doing an indepth profile. As you noticed, it really dings your hourly rate.

  7. Anthony says:

    Carol,
    My question is not directly related to interviewing per se, but I know you do a good deal of business reporting and writing so I figured you may know the answer. From my research I notice there is no consensus in terms of start and end dates for the various generations, especially once you get past Generation X.
    As writers, where can we turn for ‘definitive’ (I’m using that term loosely) answers on cultural issues (like how to describe what generation an interview or feature subject is from) that aren’t really a matter of fact?
    I don’t want readers to think I don’t know what I’m talking about if they have a different view on what defines, say Generation X. I’m very interested to know what you and your other readers think about issues like this where it is hard to find a consistent answer while doing background research. As always, thanks for the helpful tips you provide (I’m actually using one now to turn one interview into two articles!).

  8. Anne Wayman says:

    I particularly like the point that the person you’re interviewing is probably nervous too… I’ve found talking to ‘stars’ pretty easy once I remember how much like me they really are.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…Freelance Writing Jobs For BeginnersMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I worked as a secretary at a talent agency when I was still in my teens, so I learned early on that movie stars stand out at the food truck at 10:30 for a snack just like you and me. I also had one boss who would only represent directors and producers — he thought actors were all idiots — so I think that also helped me take the stars out of my eyes about celebs.

  9. Debbie Kane says:

    My journalism profs taught me to avoid asking questions that can be answered just “yes” or “no” so you can get expanded answers from sources. I also learned from an NPR reporter to be OK w/ silence after asking a question or after the subject answers. It allows you to focus on the subject and gather your thoughts and often the subject will continue to speak. Lastly, really listen to the subject & don’t worry about your list of questions. Often you learn something unexpected by going “off list”

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for adding a basic one, Debbie. I’d also add not to ask leading questions that indicate you already think you know the answer, or you’ve formed an opinion about the topic, as that may change their answer.

      I’m a HUGE fan of silences — have that in my other interview post linked above.

      And definitely, the list is just a starting point — which is why email ‘interviews’ don’t work.

  10. Ruth Zive says:

    One of the greatest interview tips you’ve ever shared Carol is using Twitter to scout out sources. I’ve seen you do it, and I think it’s actually BRILLIANT! So often, I’ve had to fill a gap or find a fringe area of expertise or experience and Twitter just makes everything so accessible and instant. I suppose it’s a tip to help GET the killer interview, but helpful nonetheless.
    Ruth Zive recently posted…What’s Sunshine Got to do With Content Marketing Strategy?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Ruth!

      LinkedIn’s great as well…I think I’ve actually gotten more resource referrals there than Twitter.

      But in any case, social media is a great way to stay connected to your network and let them help you, without screaming “I’m a freelance writer, find me some clients!” But keeps it in their minds what you do. And people love to help out with finding sources, I’ve found.

  11. Cathie Ericson says:

    These are great tips on interviewing! Wish I had read them a few years ago.

    I entered the freelance writing field from the marketing/PR side, and I have found that my news writing has really helped improve the writing I do for marketing/case study work.

    I always thought that email info gathering seemed like an expedited way to get information from busy sources, but my editor quickly pointed out the beauty of a ‘voice’ interview where they paraphrase and tangent, which is how you are going to get your most vibrant quotes that capture the subject’s personality. I also get much of my best material from the follow-up questions…information that I would never thought to ask in my initial round.

    I always prep before an interview with Internet research, but I also find that asking a source to tell me about the business or world in their own words, even if I think I already know, helps bring it to life in a way that a website might not.

    In addition to “is there anything else I should know?” I often ask “is there anyone else you think I should talk to?” at the end of an interview.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for adding to the list. I do use that “who else should I ask?” question a lot myself — great way to find more good sources for a story. Though you have to watch out that you don’t end up with a whole bunch of sources who all agree.

      I sometimes ask, “Who disagrees with you on this?” or “Who is your biggest competitor in this field?” to get another point of view.

  12. Jan Hill says:

    Great post Carol. I also do a lot of interviews and still take notes on a legal pad, as I have done for 20-plus years. Lately I’ve been considering recording the interviews as well, as I could check the accuracy of my quotes this way and it seems like it would be more conducive to a normal conversation than me asking questions and then frantically scribbling on my pad. Do you record your interviews?
    Jan Hill recently posted…Think Like a ParalegalMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Jan –

      Love that you asked this…I had a formative experience early on that cured me of the urge to record interviews.

      I found myself covering an event with several other reporters, including an L.A. Times Metro section editor I had long admired, Bob Pool. He was the greatest city-beat reporter and had done every type of local story, including being turned into a department-store Santa one holiday season and then writing about it. (I just ran a quick Google search and OMG — he’s STILL there!)

      Anyway, I had my recorder with me and a big notebook, and there was Bob — with the tiniest notebook I’d ever seen, and no recorder. I introduced myself and asked him why he didn’t record.

      “Are you kidding?” he told me. “I’ve got to file this by 2 pm today! I don’t have time to go back and listen to a recording.”

      Light bulb moment: Recording doubles your workload, or more. You have to go back and listen to it all over again.

      Instead, I learned a shorthand method and type like the wind. I’m like a court reporter. I usually get every word they say.

      To earn well, you have to be time-efficient — Bob taught me how.

      The only time I tape is if it’s a major profile of someone very high-level where I couldn’t get the access again. I remember taping an interview where I was interviewing 3 members of the founding Nordstrom family at once, for instance. But generally, I don’t record.

      • E says:

        I had a journalism prof in college (who has been nominated for two Pulitzers) give me the same advice regarding recording that you give here, Carol.

        • Carol Tice says:

          There are better recording tools today that do allow you to put a ‘bookmark’ when you hear a great quote and make it easier to skim back through it…but any way you slice it, you’re making more work for yourself. Learn to take good notes, I say.

  13. I love the suggestion to ask what else is going on in their industry. Great way to get new topics. As a newspaper editor I always end my interviews by asking, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think I should know?” It almost always leads to an interesting tidbit. In general, I find that for more involved/in-person interviews, letting the conversation keep going after the final questions always leads to an interesting insight.
    Alissa Johnson recently posted…Climbing Red Rock Canyon (New Thing #19)My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great addition to the list, Alissa.

      Often you’ll really get a surprise with that question — the source thinks your whole premise is off, and that there’s a better angle to pursue. Many times I’ve gone back and re-pitched my idea to my editor after hearing those final answers, with a new slant.

  14. Danette Watt says:

    I so much appreciate my experience and training as a reporter because I’m already comfortable with interviews. I teach a news writing course in the fall and tell my students that email interviews should be used as a last resort. I may use it for a follow up question but would never use it as my first choice (unless it’s someone I’ve interviewed on other occasions and just need a quote or 2 for a particular story).

    I feel the body language feed back is important as is the setting, esp if you are doing a feature. I also think it’s tedious for the source to have to write everything down, plus they can edit themselves and that isn’t always a plus (not for news stories, anyway, maybe for features). And I tell my students if they must email someone, to limit their questions to 4 or 5 and only 1 follow up email. We don’t want to inundate sources with multiple emails.

    Also it’s important to put a clear identifier in the subject line so your source can recognize that it’s a legitimate email request.

  15. Glen Brown says:

    Thanks. I see the reason for the personal contact, and that is always important. I can also see how some people prefer email, but I would suggest that the option be left open to the interviewee as to which they prefer, and that the writer be clear about how they will be quoted.
    Glen Brown recently posted…Why Pick Me?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t offer interviewees the option of sending me email answers, Glen. If they indicate they will be unreachable live within my timeline, I might discuss about whether they could email me some answers, or point me to materials they’ve written in the past that might help me.

      Then I go look for another live source I can interview…. 😉

  16. Josh Sarz says:

    Thanks for the tips, Carol. I haven’t thought about interviewing someone as a source of information. I usually just do the research on my own. Thanks for the really helpful post. Enjoy the rest of your week!
    Josh Sarz recently posted…Christmas in a Strange PlaceMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know you’re looking to move up and earn more, Josh, and this is where you start to make a difference in the quality of what you can deliver — when you stop believing the Internet and start talking to experts.

  17. Many newsrooms do use email and it’s acceptable, FYI. I know plenty of writers and reporters that have journalism experience or schooling that use it! Using email doesn’t make a writer any less of a reporter (and vice versa!!) so long as it is used professionally and ethically. I wrote about this in the Oct. 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest because I found it intriguing, too. Great post!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, call me old school, but I’m down on email interviewing. As Cathie notes below, there’s no ‘voice’ to email interviewing, and you rarely get the liveliest quotes that way.

      I just find increasingly people who want to interview ME routinely say, “So I’ll email you some questions and you can send back your answers.” As if that constitutes an interview. But really, it doesn’t — it’s an exchange of emails. And I find fewer and fewer writers cite them appropriately, noting that they got their quote via email.

      Interviewing is so much more — an interactive conversation, a relationship, the inflection of HOW they say it.

      • E says:

        I am also anti e-mail “interviews” unless they are absolutely unavoidable. Asking an interviewee to respond to an e-mail often eats up a great deal more of that person’s time than a phone or in-person interview does.

        A friend of mine, who is a stand-up comic, was “interviewed” this way for a publication, and even though she has zero journalism training, she thought it was just the reporter’s way of being lazy, and I agree.

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  1. […] Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to […]