Interviews are useful in a variety of types of writing, especially journalism and creative nonfiction. Whether you want your brother’s take on an important piece of family lore for your memoir or you need to pick the brain of an industry leader for a profile, knowing how to write from an interview is a vital skill.
I’ve written from interviews several times, so I thought I’d share my own process and the tips I’ve found useful.
Before You Start—How to Prepare for and Record an Interview
In order to write a successful piece based on an interview, you need ample material to work with. Before you meet with your subject, make sure to:
- Do your research. Don’t go in blind. At a minimum, you should have some basic background knowledge of the person you’re interviewing. This might include their job title, where they studied or trained, biographical information like where they grew up, or important accomplishments they’ve achieved. You might also need to know some general information about the industry they work in, the cause they advocate for, or whatever it is they’re tied to that matters to your story.
- Test your equipment. You’ll need some kind of audio and/or video recording equipment to document the interview. No, taking notes is not enough. No, you will not remember everything they say perfectly, even if you have an excellent memory. Try your equipment out ahead of time and make sure it produces good quality audio that you’ll be able to refer back to later.
- Bring questions to ask (even if you think you won’t need them). It’s possible that your subject will be super chatty and carry the interview with minimal input from you. However, that isn’t always the case! Come prepared with questions (I recommend at least ten, but depending on the scope and complexity of your piece, you might need more) just in case the conversation stalls. Prepping questions can also help you make sure your subject doesn’t skip over any important topics you want to cover.
As mentioned above, you should absolutely record the interview. You can do this using an app on your phone, or you can rent recording equipment. If the conversation will take place over video conference or a phone call, you should be able to use your software’s recording feature or a call recording app.
In addition to recording the interview, you should also take handwritten notes. It might seem redundant, but having both the full recording and your impressions in the moment on paper can help immensely when you sit down to write from an interview.
Do I Need Permission to Record an Interview?
The short answer is yes, you need to ask the subject’s permission to record your interview.
You can obtain this permission in writing (via email or text message) or on your audio recording. Just turn on your recording device and before you start the interview and say something like, “I just want to let you know that I’m recording this so I can refer back to our discussion. Is that okay with you?”
Make sure your subject responds with a verbal “yes” so that it’s documented.
If you’re working with a publisher, such as a newspaper or a magazine, they may provide you with a contract for the subject to sign that includes a disclosure and agreement regarding interview recording.
Laws about consent for audio recording vary by country and by state in the U.S. If you’re unsure about how to approach recording an interview, consult your publisher and/or professional legal counsel.
How to Write From an Interview (3 Tips)
So, you’ve had your interview and now you’re ready to sit down with your recording and your notes to start working on your piece. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Transcribe Your Interview
Before you actually start outlining your piece, there’s one more thing you need to do—transcribe the recording of your interview.
It’s a lot easier to refer back to a written document than an audio recording. Having to repeatedly pause and rewind your recording will slow you down, and it’s a lot harder to search for specific parts of the interview you want to reference.
There are a few different ways you can transcribe your interview:
- Do it yourself by hand. Listen back to your recording and type out the conversation yourself. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but it’s free.
- Hire someone to transcribe your interview. You can find freelance transcribers using online marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr. The cost is usually based on how long the transcriber spends transcribing your recording, so if your interview is long or you have multiple interviews to transcribe, the cost can add up quickly.
- Use a voice-to-text transcription app. This is kind of the middle of the road option. Transcription software has come a long way and is at least somewhat accurate, but you’ll still have to spend time checking your transcription to make sure everything was transposed correctly. You’ll also probably have to spend some money on an app, but it likely won’t be nearly as much as you’d spend on a professional transcriber. I’ve had good luck with Trint, but there are other options on the market as well.
Once your interview is in text format, you can easily search the document, copy quotes, or even make notes and comments to help outline your piece.
2. Summarize Background Information So Quotes Stand Out
While it’s tempting to use your subject’s words to explain complex processes or backstory, it’s often better to summarize than to include a lengthy quote. This will give you the chance to condense your subject’s explanation, or to highlight important details that you want to draw attention to.
Your subject’s knowledge and experience are invaluable—that’s why you interviewed them. But that doesn’t mean they’ll always say things in a way that’s easy for readers to understand, or that fits nicely into the structure of your piece. It may seem harsh, but if you can say it better than they did, you should.
Plus, if you overuse quotes, they start to lose their effect. A well-placed quote that really shows off your subject’s personality will stand out, but that same line buried in a long-winded excerpt from your interview could be easily overlooked.
In general, you should only quote your subject if the way they said something adds value beyond just dispensing information. Maybe it will help show readers some of their character. Maybe it’s just funny. The point is, being picky about the quotes you include will make the ones that do find their way into the finished piece more impactful.
3. Set the Scene
While it might not seem that important, if you’re writing a narrative article from an interview, setting the scene can really help bring your subject to life. You can describe where you met for the interview, what your subject wore, their body language, and more to show readers what it was like to meet this person face to face.
For example, take this paragraph:
I met Ms. Smith at a local coffee shop she frequents. The barista was familiar with her, and knew her drink order without having to ask. After we’d collected our refreshments—a latte with an extra espresso shot for Ms. Smith, and a chai for myself—we made our way to a quiet corner near a window to talk. Ms. Smith seemed at home as she relaxed into her upholstered chair and crossed her legs before we began.
And compare it to this one:
Ms. Smith’s secretary greeted me when I arrived at her office. I waited on a white leather sofa until the exact minute of our agreed upon meeting time arrived, at which point I was invited back to the equally stark conference room. Ms. Smith shook my hand before she took her seat, holding herself with such immaculate posture that I found myself sitting a bit straighter as I retrieved my notebook.
These examples present two very different “Ms. Smiths” and tell you a lot about who you’re reading about before you’ve even heard the subject’s voice. Quotes go a long way, but so does some good old fashioned characterization.
Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas on how to write from an interview and craft an immersive article for your readers. Although research is vital, nothing beats first-hand experience and expert insight, making interviews an excellent source when writing any type of creative work.
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Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.