August 19, 2015

As a writer I would NOT give myself high marks for the crafts of interviewing, listening, and note-taking. But I have sat at the knees of journalists who are experts at these elements of craft: John Sawatsky of ESPN, Jacqui Banaszynski of the University of Missouri, and Tom French of Indiana University – all of whom have taught at Poynter.

Not long ago, I taught a workshop on these topics to the young men of Poynter’s Write Field program, about 40 minority students attending middle school and high school. They found my lessons useful, so I thought I would pass them on to a larger audience.

I realize these dozen strategies constitute the basics. But when I am struggling with a craft – golf, music, writing – I find it helpful to remind myself of those basics, to climb down from the penthouse and visit the ground floor.

1. Even if you have a chance to record an interview, back it up with notes in your notebook. You never know when technology will fail you.

2. Learn as much as you can about the subject – time permitting – BEFORE you conduct the interview. Go in prepared.

3. Bring into the interview a list of questions in the general order you want to ask them. You may want to save a tougher question until the end.

4. During the interview, do not be tied to your list of questions. Listen, listen and listen. Let the subject know you are listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, leaning forward and taking notes.

5. Write down in your notebook the key words and phrases you will need for writing your story.

6. If the subject is speaking too fast, don’t be afraid to say “Please give me a second; I want to write that down.” Or, “That sounds important; can you please say it again?”

7. As soon as you can after the interview, look at your notes. Fill them out from memory. Type them out on a data sheet so you can get at them more easily.

8. Annotate your notes. That is, mark them with stars or arrows or marginalia such as “this quote good for end of story.”

9. Don’t just write down what you hear, write down what you see.

10. Be polite and respectful, even to subjects who may be grumpy or difficult to deal with.

11. Arrive early to check out the scene; stay late to gather final thoughts.

12. Call back a source to gather something you missed or to check the accuracy of something you are not sure of.

Three bonus tips:

*Ask one question at a time. This isn’t multiple choice.

*Ask open-ended questions, not ones that can be answered yes or no.

*Be patient. Don’t break the silence with a new question.

What tips would you add to this list of basics?

Related: Coaching Writers: 7 Questions Every Editor Should Ask

‘Don’t be boring’ and 6 other interviewing tips from Jacqui Banaszynski

(Icons in video via The Noun Project – Notepad by Christina Sicoli, US. Check-List by Sherrinford, FR. Monitor by DesignNex. Pen By Jake Dunham, FR. Journal by Loïc Poivet, FR. Recorder by Marie Van den Broeck, BE.)

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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