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Four Tips for Improving Your Interviewing
by Isabel Viana

Do you sweat, lose sleep or appetite at the prospect of an interview? Even when you know that that expert opinion added to your article will be just like icing over the cake, covering the cracks, filling the gaps, keeping the mass together? If you see interviews as overpowering lions blocking the way between you and a great piece of writing, the following tips will help you conquer each lion without killing it.

1. Start at home. Interview somebody you know, such as your child's pediatrician about new treatments for childhood leukemia, or your former psychology professor about the origin of phobias. For my very first interview, I chose my husband, a massage therapist specializing in Thai massage, as my subject. I sent the manuscript to a local newspaper that focuses on alternative medicine and New Age topics, but the editor rejected it because he'd already accepted an article about Thai massage for the next issue. In his letter, however, he also said that if I had any other ideas, I should drop him a line. I called him right away (even though I didn't have a clear proposal for a new article), and he asked me if I could interview an internationally known psychiatrist and author of several bestsellers for the November issue. Even though sweat started dripping from my armpits, I said yes and my very first interview, with my byline, was published two months later. Start at home, but don't be afraid to venture into new terrain. In other words, don't aim high for your first few interviews, but accept the opportunity to converse with a well-known figure if it comes your way.

2. Do your homework. Tina Kennedy, freelance writer and former assistant editor of the electronic newsletter Inklings, says that "to overcome those feelings of intimidation [concerning interviews] I decided to become, at the very least, an informed fool." Learn the terminology of the topic you'll be writing on; read about it so that you can raise relevant questions, questions that the readers would also like to see answered. When Kennedy started freelancing around ten years ago, she often wrote a summary of all she knew about an issue before walking into an interview. She says, "Once I had the summary I could easily decide what questions needed to be asked and answered. Overall, becoming well informed, and having a comprehensive outline kept me focused and able to overcome the fear [of interviews]." For starters, choose a topic you're already familiar with. For instance, is papermaking your hobby? Why not interview your teacher, the one who first taught you about choosing fibers, colors, checking the water's pH? Choose a slant: how to make ends meet as a papermaker, or papermaking as therapy, or the best fibers for papermaking. Deciding on a slant will also help you narrow down markets for your final draft.

3. Use a buffer. Today we're fortunate to have e-mail, fax, and phones. If that will make you more comfortable, use a buffer between yourself and your subject. The interview I conducted with the psychiatrist was done by phone as we were in different states. But even if he lived in the next neighborhood, I could still have used the phone. There's no rule that dictates interviews must be done in person. The one I conducted with Tina Kennedy, who lives in Canada, was done by e-mail. I could have used the phone, the fax or mailed her a questionnaire. Choose your interview method based on two things: feasibility and convenience (mainly your subject's, who is, after all, doing you a favor). It wouldn't have been financially feasible for me to fly to Canada to interview Kennedy. I had her e-mail address, so I started by approaching her electronically, and she felt comfortable with that. Others wouldn't have. As you set up your interview, find out what method would best suit the two of you. Somebody with a busy schedule may ask that you forward a questionnaire that can be answered and returned to you. Whichever vehicle you decide to use, you should always pick up the tab--no collect calls, and include a self-addressed stamped envelope if the answers are to be mailed back to you. Other than that, be flexible and creative.

4. Take a deep breath and throw yourself to the lion. The more interviews you conduct, the more confident you'll feel. Soon you'll notice the lion turning into a docile kitten.

This article first appeared in the July 1998 issue of Writer's Network.

© Copyright 1998, Isabel Viana

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