How to Interview (if You were Never Trained How)

Journalism was not a field I ever planned to go into. Both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees were in education and when I first decided to try freelancing seven years ago, I planned to use the skills I've honed over the years as a photographer to make a living. 

As an avid reader, I did have a secret dream of being a writer, specifically of writing a book one day. But to regularly write articles for newspapers and magazines? That was so far out of my thinking it wasn't even a dream.

Note that I have absolutely no training. I didn’t minor in journalism. I didn’t even take a journalism class. For that matter, I took the most basic English class I could as I was planning to be a math and/or physics major.

It was a "God-thing" that I started writing professionally. Working as a photographer led to a chance to write a series of articles. That led to writing more.

But before you decide that this post isn’t worth your time and you leave to read another post from someone who does know what they are doing, let me explain where I am now.

I’m not bragging because it really was God-thing after God-thing that got me to where I am, but in the four years since I started writing professionally, I have interviewed and written articles about musical artists, film producers/directors, best-selling authors, and professional sports.

 In addition, I’ve won both local and national awards for my writing and gotten numerous compliments from those who have been interviewed a lot throughout their careers.

 I must be doing something right.

So now, back to the beginning…

When I started writing for a newspaper, I started having a lot of what I thought were great ideas for articles. However, I had no idea of the steps to take an idea all the way to a published article.

Between pride and social anxiety, I hesitated to ask others for help. I didn’t know about SCWC (Southern Christian Writer’s Conference) or other similar organizations.

I decided I would try to figure it out on my own, with a little advice from a friend who was a former journalist.

My first two articles were relatively easy. I saw that TobyMac and Hillsong United were coming to Birmingham, AL and I got a green light to try to cover the concerts.

The first hurdle was finding the agent/tour manager/publicist to grant me a press pass. That’s still how I start today – type in the name of the artist, follow it with “manager” and see what Google says.

Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. At first, I didn’t have the skills to go beyond that step, but thankfully, at the time it worked.

After submitting those two, I really caught the bug. I realized this was fun and I had a feeling it was something I could do well.

From these I went to a journalist-type coverage of a workshop at Samford. I took notes and photos, but other than a follow-up question or two, I still wasn’t doing any real interviewing… yet.

Then came the first big interview (or so I thought) - Chonda Pierce. I got in touch with her management and included a note in the pitch to the paper that she would also be a good podcast subject.

They thought that was a great idea. So, my “first interview” was conducted by someone else. They used some of my questions, but mostly it was their interview.

I recorded and took notes (literally transcribing the whole thing without software… pro tip – don’t!) and wrote an article based on the podcast.

When my first real solo interview opportunity came up, I hadn’t asked for it. I didn’t even want to get the information that way. I wanted to cover the event as I had been doing.

However, I couldn’t get into the event so my first ever “real” interview was done only because I couldn’t get the information through research alone.

Looking back to that interview, I have to laugh. I hand-wrote my notes. I again transcribed every word from my voice recording. It was a mess and took forever to finish.

To try to improve (without bothering anyone), I found writing organizations; I watched online workshops; I listened to great interviewers doing their thing. But mostly I simply tried to analyze what went well and what didn’t after each interview.

From there, it just evolved.

At first my questions came mostly from what I wanted to learn. Even though I kept in mind that it was also about the reader, it took a while for me to think more from the publication’s audience’s perspective. (Boy, is that embarrassing to admit!)

I also didn’t want to simply regurgitate what had already been written so my questions had to reflect that.

One thing that helped was a game my journalist friend shared early on: “Stump the Interviewee.”

Within the big goal of composing an interesting, well-written article, my small goal, especially with those who had been interviewed a lot and had pat answers developed for most questions, is to hear at least once during the interview, “Man, that’s a great question!”

One of my favorite instances of this was a question I asked Matthew West (one of the few interviews where I’m such a big fan that I had to work to stay professional and not go all “fan-girl” during the interview).

I came up with the question during the K-Love Fan Awards’ press conference. I thought it was amazing (in my humble opinion).

The question was "It’s obvious that fans resonate with your message of being honest, real, and vulnerable. Why do you think it’s still so hard to be transparent at church or with other Christians? What can we do about it?”

When he didn’t show for the press conference, I got to ask it during an interview – and I got my “Man, that’s a great question!” 😊

I’m still learning (and know I always will be). Though I love my current style and it seems to work, I’m now trying to figure out how to be more efficient, with more directed questions.

That’s one of the great things about writing; it’s a field where someone can start at any level of training and learn as you go.

Plus, you never know where you’ll end up. Maybe you could also interview Matthew West!

Other tips/advice:

-        I try to do interviews from home so I can take notes on my computer.

-        I make sure to record it… on two platforms. It’s happened more than once that one of my recording devices failed.

-        I randomly add timestamps throughout so that I can easily find exactly what was said.

-        When I hear a potential quote, I write “QUOTE” with the timestamp. I’ve also started adding “START WITH THIS” or “END WITH THIS” to refresh my memory later.

-        I always ask for permission to record. I’ve never been told no, but a refusal is always possible.

-        I have a system to back-up all of my notes and recordings.

 

BIO:

Tracy is an award-winning professional writer/photographer and has had hundreds of articles and thousands of photos published in newspapers, magazines and online. She’s passionate about helping others and finding unique angles for telling stories through images and words.

Offshoots of this passion are her blogs – one about her learning curve (and mistakes) as a freelancer and another about mental health and invisible illnesses called “Spotlight on Stigma - Welcomed but Not Accepted.” She’s also learning sign language and goes to a Deaf church. She has one adult daughter, is a caregiver for her elderly parents, and recently married a fellow photographer, Travis Frontz, who has just joined her freelance business full-time.

To find out more about their work, go to www.NovelPhotos.com. To read her blog about being a freelancer, go to the Novel Photos website and find “Novel Photos’ Blog” in the menu. To read her blog about stigmas, go to www.SpotlightonStigma.com.

 

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