Writing and interviewing can be hard. Especially for newcomers, which is something I’ll have to remember when school starts back and I’m the news editor for a group of new journalists (and hopefully many returning ones). A few weeks ago I decided I would make a booklet for my little writers and while brainstorming, I realized I was thinking of tips that all writers need to remember. Myself included.
So I figured, why not put it up on my blog where anybody can have access to it? I’m going back to the basics of journalism, because that’s where your entire career starts.
Get the basic details down
Ask the person you’re interviewing how to spell their name. I don’t care if it’s John/Jane Doe. Ask them. Because guess what? John could be Jon, and Jane could be Jayne. Think of all your young friends having kids and giving them ridiculous names that spellcheck could never fix for you. Ask how to spell it.
For news writing, you want to know where the person is from. And if you’re doing school news writing it’s good to get their classification and major as well.
Do your research
There’s nothing worse than going in to an interview and not knowing your stuff. Trust me, I’ve done it a few times and it was embarrassing.
Obviously you can’t know everything, that’s what you’re there to ask questions for. But find out a little about the festival you’re covering, or what APN stands for (Advanced Practice Nurse, by the way). It isn’t professional to not have a clue what you’re talking about with you’re interviewee.
Get the facts straight
If you don’t understand something your interviewee has said, ask them to explain it. I’ve done this countless times for articles I’ve written over hippotherapy, converting cooking oil in to fuel, and the recent article I did about the APN. It’s better to ask again than to get something wrong.
Just run through your notes before you close the interview to double check you have everything written down correctly. And if you scribble like I do, make sure what’s written is legible. If not, ask again.
For the first several months of being in journalism, I went in to every interview with a set list of questions and hardly strayed from them. That meant that while I listened to the person, I was mainly focused on getting to the next question. Don’t do this! It’s hard if you’re just starting out, but you want to break yourself of that habit as soon as possible.
It is good to have some questions written down before you go in, but don’t be afraid to go off in another direction. Listen. Let the person talk. Don’t be afraid of silence either. Usually the person you are interviewing will fill that silence with more information. So don’t be afraid to take time writing down notes.
Find the right angle
For my writers, I will give them the angle of the story so they won’t really have to worry about this much. For me, my editor at the Premiere Magazine has been wonderful about telling me to just go for it. So that means I have to find the interesting twist on a person’s story and let them explain it to me.
This is why it is important to not go strictly by a question list. There could be an interesting and random fact about a person you’ll only hear about if you let them steer the conversation another direction. For example, I did a student profile over a guy who was using scientific research to help him get into the Peace Corps, but he spent his downtime making his own beer. Cool, right?
True, that’s what an editor is supposed to do. But you will save them a lot of grief if you clear up your own misplaced commas and fix the “there”, “their” and “theres.” It’s okay to be over the word count (editors can always cut out) but never be under your word count. It’s stressful getting a story that’s only 300 words when you need 500.
That’s it, the basics of journalism. At least, the important ones I wanted to point out for now. I really hope this will help my new writers and remind the old ones of things they may not pay attention to anymore. What rules do you go by when writing and interviewing?