How to Conduct an Interview in 5 Steps

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As I get ready to interview another author, I thought I’d write up a post on how to do an interview. We tend to think of it as pretty easy. But getting someone to open up about their work can be tricky. Especially if this person is an introverted author.

Pick an Interview Topic

It sounds obvious but Step 1 is all about choosing your interview topic. You may not focus on it through the whole interview, wanting to ask both about their background and their manuscript, but it will be your lead. And this lead may very well vary from author to author.

Sometimes the person’s background is what’s most striking. Writing may be their second career and you want to cover how this person went from being a surgeon to being an author. Or there’s a poignant story about what led them to write the book. This will be your focus or at the very least where you start.

Yes or No

Once you’ve decided what you want to ask about, now you have to figure out how to shape your questions so that they cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” The reason for this is that you want the person to talk at length if possible. The more they talk, the more likely they are to say something that hasn’t been said before.

No matter how you word your questions, some people are going to give abbreviated answers. Some will do it if the interview is via email. Others will do it on the phone or in person. Some people just don’t have much to say. But it is easier to draw people out if you ask questions that cannot be answered YES or NO.

Avoid the Negatives

I don’t write for Dateline. I’m not trying to make someone cry on camera. My work isn’t about shocking or offending anyone. So I avoid asking about negatives or trying to trip up my source.

The other reason to avoid negative questions is that your subject is more likely to shut down and give you that super short answer. That doesn’t mean you should avoid these topics but be careful how you word your question.

Don’t ask What was your first thought when you got fired? Instead, reframe the question. You moved from X to Y in 2020. What surprised you most about your new position? Sometimes they’ll bring up the backstory on their own and that’s okay. You’ve given them the power to choose.

Keep It Short

When possible, keep your interview time to 15 or 20 minutes. I try to limit myself to 5 or 6 questions. But these aren’t necessarily single questions. I tend to go for what I call “question sets.” If one doesn’t get the person talking, perhaps the next question will. A question set consist of related questions, something like this.

“Some writers are plotters, carefully outlining their work. Others are pantsers. Which method do you prefer and why? How has this changed throughout your writing career and from project to project?”

“…And why” keeps the person from giving a one word answer and the second half of the question encourages them to elaborate.

Pause Before You Hit SEND

It is tempting to jot down the first five or six questions that come to mind. What was your inspiration? What are you working on now? Questions like these can bring a lot of information. But if this person has been interviewed before, they’ve probably already answered the easy questions.

Take some time and consider what you might ask. Every now and then, I throw in “what question do you wish I had asked and what is your answer?” That one is always entertaining because it is always unexpected. Once I draft my questions, I work on something else, often something fascinating like folding laundry. Then I take another look at the questions. If I’m still happy with them, then I send them out.

As a writer, you want to cover ground that no one has covered before. Otherwise you are going to have a hard time interesting publishers in your story. As an interviewer, you also need to cover new territory. But you have to combine this with encouraging the person to say something interesting, informative and natural. It takes a bit of time but it is well worth the effort.