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Fab Four: Making the Most of Interviews
writing in a notebook

Today marks the start of a new semi-regular feature here on The Urban Muse. In an effort to bring you even more expert writing tips and authoritative perspectives on freelancing, I've asked several of the freelance writers I admire to weigh in on a given topic. Some of you expressed interest in learning more interview techniques, so that's the focus of today's Fab Four post.

Here's the question I asked four veteran journalists:

Here's the question for the first installment: What's your best interview strategy? How do you create rapport with sources and elicit interesting quotes? Do you have a favorite tool for recording interviews (pen & paper, typed notes, voice recorder, video conferencing, etc?
And here are their responses:

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: I ask very open-ended questions in an interview, especially the beginning. I think that develops rapport because people get to talk about whatever is most interesting to them. I must have a friendly voice because people seem to open up right away -- or maybe it's just the unusual experience of having someone listen intently to their answers. I try to type all interview notes directly into the computer, if a phone interview or covering an event. Otherwise, I use a Sansa clip and attach it to the person's collar to get a clear recording. They usually forget it's there in about 2 minutes.

My best in-person interview strategy is to listen especially carefully to the casual chit chat after I put away the notebook and we start walking to the door. These "throw-away" remarks are often the real gems of the interview, although I make sure to get permission before using them. Some of my favorite questions that elicit interesting quotes include:
What surprised you about XYZ topic or experience? If you could give advice to other (demographic or the publication's audience), what would you say? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you do? Can you explain it to me as if I were your mother?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a freelance journalist and blogger based in the Washington, D.C., area who specializes in money, work and family. Her freelance writing has appeared in,, The New York Times, Parade, Slate and The Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked for The Bond Buyer, Bloomberg and Newhouse News Service. Follow her on Twitter: @ KatherineLewis.

Lori Widmer: Having conducted hundreds of interviews, I’ve found that the best interview strategy is to go into it with curiosity. This is a person on the other end of the phone. This person has great information, and by asking, I can learn something new or interesting. Creating rapport is easy – I treat my interview sources as the interesting people they are. I won’t start any interview without asking how they are and making some connection to either something they’d written in email, in the news, or to their region. Getting great quotes comes from knowing the topic and having enough interest in it to ask the right questions. I never go into an interview without asking “What would I really like to know about this?”

I record and take notes during interviews. Recorders are great for getting the exact quote, and notes are a backup should the recorder fail (and it’s happened). Also, I tend to note on paper the time stamp corresponding with a particular quote I hear. It helps me to find it later.

Lori Widmer has over 15 years of writing and editing experience, not the least of which is interviewing everyone from CEOs and VIPs to small business owners and friends. She blogs about all things writing at Words on the Page.

Jenny Rough: Listen to what the interviewee is saying. If you're too focused on taking notes, or too worried about asking your next question, you might miss the opportunity to follow up on a comment or not realize they had just opened the door to something you didn't know. Also, don't let silence scare you. Keep quiet. Often, the person will keep talking and/or throw out an extra thought that ends up being a key quote. I usually record my interviews on Skype call recorder and use an affordable transcription service. It saves a ton of time.
Jenny Rough is a lawyer-turned-writer who enjoys covering women's health, mindful-living, and the writing life. Trying Times, her most recent article, shares the stories of women struggling to conceive.Michelle Rafter: I interview a lot of busy executives, including CEOs, so I often send a bullet list of subjects I want to cover ahead of time. The source or their PR person can use it to know what to prep for - which is good for me so I don't have to sit through 15 minutes of hearing their company spiel before getting to the stuff I want to know about. However, sending them a list of questions doesn't mean I don't ask anything else - I always do - not that I tell them that.

Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions - This is the biggest point of all. Think about what your readers or editor - or mother - would want to know, and ask that question. Why go to all of the trouble to arrange to talk to this person and then not ask the questions that people are dying to know the answers to, even if they're really, really difficult to ask. I've asked an Orange County, Calif., couple that spent one Thanksgiving in the hospital praying over their gravely ill only child what they were thankful for that holiday. I've asked boiler room operators how they could take millions of dollars from retirees. I've asked Suzy Welch if writing a book was her declaration of independence from her more-famous husband and former GE chairman Jack. You gotta ask the hard questions.

Michelle Rafter is a Portland, Oregon, journalist covering business, workplace and consumer issues for national publications including Crain's Workforce Management and She also edits Inside Edge, a custom publication for CFOs from American Express and Federated Media. During her career, Rafter has been on staff or freelanced for Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Orange County Register,, the Industry Standard and other business and consumer publications and websites. Flickr photo courtesy of jjpacres

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Fab Four: Making the Most of Interviews + writing