How to Interview an Expert: 10 Tips for Writers

accba0b69f352b4c9440f05891b015c5Writers interview experts, witnesses and other sources not just for information, but to make their magazine articles, books and even their blog posts more interesting. Direct quotations and real-life experiences are exactly what writers need to make a boring, dry topic more interesting and relevant to readers. These tips on how to interview experts and witnesses will help you find and talk to the best sources.

I also tackle one of my favorite questions about interviewing sources. Should writers use email to interview experts and witnesses? As a freelance writer, I interview sources over email 90% of the time. Email interviews are not a best practice for freelancers who are writing exposes, feature articles, or personality profiles. But if you’re writing an article about something general or uncomplicated (such as how to interview someone famous for a magazine article or even how to get published in in Reader’s Digest), you can use email to interview sources.

Here are 10 “best practices” (tips) on how to interview experts. Below that are a few benefits and drawbacks of email interviews with experts, professionals and witnesses for freelance magazine and newspaper articles.

These insights are from a panel of professional journalists and freelance writers at the Writer’s Craft Fair hosted by the BC Association of Magazine Publishers.

10 Tips for Writers Interviewing Experts and Witnesses

When you interview someone for an article – whether it’s a NASA astrophysicist or your dear old dad – always write down or record your time together. Direct quotations will bring your writing to life, make the topic more interesting, and reveal the expert’s personality.

One of the reasons I prefer email interviews is that I have the expert or source’s exact words in writing. This avoids the “she said/he said” trap that some writers fall into. I’ve never had to prove an expert or source said something, but I don’t write articles that are controversial.

How to Interview Expert Sources for Articles and Books
Writers Interview Expert Sources

1. Know your own emotional triggers

Certain topics are taboo (money, politics, religion, sex), which can make you feel awkward when asking sources certain questions. Unless, of course, you’re writing an article about finances, political issues, religion or relationships. When you feel uncomfortable talking about a certain topic, such as how much money freelance writers or content creators make, remember that the expert you are interviewing is probably very comfortable with the topic. After all, he or she is the expert! If they weren’t able or willing to talk about something they should know about, you shouldn’t be interviewing them. Here’s the bottom line: when you’re interviewing a source for an article, make sure your own issues aren’t preventing you from asking direct, relevant questions.

2. Share a little about yourself to establish rapport

Making a connection with your source with a shared interest, similar like or dislike, or even a person you both know can be a valuable way to establish rapport. A writer’s main focus should be on interviewing the source, but both professional experts and regular folks will tell you more if you have something in common. They’ll also give you more details, which will bring your book or article alive.

3. Let there be “spaces in your togetherness”

One of my favorite quotations is Rumi’s “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” This tip for interviewing sources simply means stop talking. Even a five second pause can feel endless – but those pools of silence will eventually reveal gems of information. Give your experts time to think, to reflect, and to figure out how to say what they want. Get comfortable with silence; it’s a powerful tool for encouraging experts and other sources to speak up. it’s a great way to discover fascinating tidbits.

4. Do a few hours of research in advance

Dig around in your source’s past. Discover small, seemingly insignificant details about his or her life. Then, ask him or her for clarification on certain activities or quotations. Show that you’ve spent some time doing your research. This a simple tip for interviewing sources for articles that facilitates trust and shows that you’re eager, smart and prepared. Preparing in advance by researching your source’s background will also build your own interest in the topic.

5. Get the basic information right

Make sure you know your source’s correct name, profession, education, location, family status, hobbies – whatever is most relevant to the article or book you’re writing. Getting basic facts wrong is a sign of carelessness or sloppiness, and could affect your future relationship with the expert source. Errors also decrease your chances of landing another magazine assignment from the editor or getting your book published.

6. Prepare questions in advance, but…

Have a list of questions to ask your expert about the article or book topic. The best and most successful writers prepare too many questions because they’re curious! But, don’t hesitate to ask different questions when you’re actually conducting the interview. The more experience you get as a writer who interviews expert sources, the easier it’ll be to recognize when the discussion isn’t relevant for the article or book. When you discover you are off track, return to the foundation questions that you prepared in advance of the interview.

7. Edit the expert’s direct quotations for clarity and brevity

Even the most professional sources and experts talk in circles. They use many “um’s” and “like’s” and “you knows” in conversation. When a writer quotes an expert source directly, the writer does not include those extra bits. Unless, of course, they add something to the book or article. Sometimes a source’s mannerisms add flavor and depth to the writer’s work. Never change the meaning or essence of what the expert or witness said. Simpy ensure that direct quotations make sense.

8. Tell your source that you are recording the interview

Some journalists or freelance writers don’t tell their sources that the interview is being recorded. An experienced writer may assume that everyone knows that interviews are recorded as a best practice for journalism and even book writing. Don’t be the writer who assumes anything about the expert! Always inform your source before recording the interview.

Are you writing about love or marriage? Read 10 Tips for Writing Relationship Articles and Blog Posts.

9. Ask for leads to other relevant sources, places, or experiences

I’ve interviewed over 12 experts, professionals and laypeople for one magazine article. Everyone has a different perspective and experience with the topic; a good writer finds and uses as many relevant insights as possible. The best books and articles include both sides of an issue, to show readers more depth and complexity. One source or expert is rarely enough for a solid magazine article or informative book. How do you find more professional sources to interview? Ask your interview subjects for recommendations or suggestions. Even visiting a place can be a valuable source of additional information (even thought it’s kinda hard to interview a place like a mountain or a fruit such as a kumquat).

10. At the end of the interview, asked what you missed

3 great questions at the end of an interview:

  1. “What would surprise readers to learn about X?”
  2. “What do you wish you knew about X before you started?”
  3. “Is there anything I missed that you think people ought to know?”

As we’re wrapping up the interview, I remind my experts that they may remember more information later. I invite them to email me even if they think the new info may not be relevant to the article or book.

Should writers use email to do interviews?

I’m an introverted blogger prefers the big picture (the forest) over the details (the trees). As such I prefer email interviews. I find that interviewing a source or expert in person or even on the phone is time-consuming and draining. I have never conducted an interview over Skype, Zoom, or other online platforms.

If you’re a writer who believes that direct face-to-face email interviews are better than email interviews, I’d agree 100% with you! Although, it depends on how you define “better.” Email interviews are not a professional journalists best practice, but they’re perfect for freelance writers like me. I write general, tips-based, nonfiction magazine articles and blog posts. In-person interviews are almost never necessary.

5 Reasons Writers Use Email to Interview Sources

  1. Email is efficient, effective, and easy.
  2. Email interviews are more accurate because the information is easily verifiable. I can quote a source’s exact words without worrying about misunderstanding or misinterpreting information.
  3. Email is a fast way to interview several different experts or sources at the same time.
  4. Professional experts, sources and witnesses are busy. Email interviews give them the opportunity to think through their answers in advance and write me at their convenience.
  5. Email interviews give me more time to do other things, and don’t drain my energy.

The articles I write don’t require in-depth discussions, personal descriptions, or even that much verification. Most of my magazine articles and all of my blog posts are based on email interviews (if an expert or source is quoted). For example, How to Avoid Making Foolish Mistakes With Magazine Editors is the result of an email interview with the editor-in-chief of Vancouver’s alive magazine.

4 Tips for Conducting Email Interviews

  1. Don’t email an expert by email if the info you require is complex, emotional, personal, or controversial. Email interviews work best with about 7 questions. Sometimes I ask 10 questions, and invite the expert source to answer the ones that make the most sense to them. If your article or book is straightforward and general, an email interview is probably sufficient. Most round up and “top ten” articles are perfectly suited for email interviews. That said, however, direct quotations from sources really do make writing more interesting to read.
  2. Consider the nature of the article or book you are writing. Emailing sources is fine if you’re conducting an opinion poll, survey or questionnaire. Questions that are direct and simple – and that require “yes or no” , “true or false”, or “choose A, B, or C” – answers are perfect for email interviews. These questions rarely require telephone calls or face-to-face visits to experts.
  3. Work with your expert sources. Some experts I’ve approached for my articles said they prefer telephone interviews, not email. In most cases I simply find another source to interview. Though I have conducted both in-person and telephone interviews, I prefer the convenience and agility of email.
  4. Consider your readers’ preferences. Are you writing an author personality profile for Writer’s Digest and or collecting writing tips from famous writers like Stephen King or JK Rowling? Do an in-person interview. Your readers will love the details you can add to the article or book. Seeing writers in person will give you information, mannerisms, nuances, style, facial expressions, and environment that will make your article or book more interesting.

Finding time to interview an expert face-to-face can be difficult. Interviewing a source in person can also be awkward or uncomfortable if you don’t actually like the person or feel comfortable talking to him or her! You also have to ensure that your recording device does not fail, and have a back-up recording method.

In-person interviews give both writers and readers a much more accurate sense of the person or place, but email interviews are easier. Which do you prefer?

If you want to write for newspapers or magazines but don’t know what to write about, read 11 Most Popular Types of Magazine Articles – Print & Online.


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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.