When interviewing your subject, ask one question at a time. Prompt the person if they draw a blank. If they are self-conscious, tell them about a similar incident in your own life. Become vulnerable. Some people don’t want bad things said about them, but our vulnerable areas help others the most. If the interviewee opens up, get permission to print the sensitive material.
If you become confused, stop and summarize what you think the person is trying to say. Know when to probe and when to back off. Interviewing is an emotional experience, and a bond is formed between you and the person. Show empathy.
When you are finished, ask if you can call the interviewee if you forgot anything. This leaves the door open if you have a question. Leave your business card, and write a thank you.
Your eye-to-eye contact is vital in the interview. Although you will take notes during the interview, rely more on your digital recorder. A tremendous amount of emotional tension takes place during an interview. Individuals often feel vulnerable and transparent once their feelings are down on paper. Be sensitive and empathetic in interviewing and in writing the article afterwards.
Assure the person that the information is confidential. You want to get the words right, particularly if you are going to quote the person. Also, you want to write in the interviewee’s style. Listen for favorite words, mannerisms, and accents. Use the educational level and culture of the person, but you never use the exact words. You can’t write like you speak. You must edit, edit, edit—whittle away the excess. You want the interviewee comfortable with your finished product.
Put your subject at ease during the first five minutes. Then turn on your digital recorder. Have a set of questions prepared before the interview. Here are 10 questions to use as a guide, but don’t use my ten questions as is. They would not all be used in one interview. Instead, pick the ones most suited to your interviewee, and add your own questions to the list.
Ten Suggested Questions for an Interview
- Do you have any special words you live by?
- Was there a time in your life when you felt closest to God?
- Was there a time when you felt God was far away?
- When did God dramatically answer prayer in your life?
- When did you feel most challenged?
- Is there an incident in your live that could benefit others?
- Have you ever been afraid?
- When was the most special time in your life?
- Have you ever experienced failure?
- What is the most vivid memory in your past?
Now where do you find people to interview? I wouldn’t recommend looking for famous people like Billy Graham, Max Lucado, or Chuck Swindoll, even though Pastor Chuck was once my pastor. They probably won’t have time to meet with you. Look at the people around you. People are fascinating. Look in your church for an interesting person. Read the local interest column in your newspaper. Keep a file folder of interesting people to interview. Perhaps a boy from your church won an event in the Special Olympics for mentally handicapped children. But a word of warning—don’t interview too close to a tragedy. A person needs a little distance to obtain a proper perspective. Be sensitive.
Keep a file folder of interesting subjects on which to interview. Once you find a subject, research it. Then find an expert in the field and interview that person. Research and interviewing go hand-in-hand. People love to speak about what interests them: hobbies, vocations, talents. And you can be the apprentice learning at the master’s feet.
Remember to do your homework before the actual interview takes place. If the person has written a book, read it. Learn all you can about that person before you interview him or her. You don’t want to waste valuable time asking questions you can find answers to on your own.
If you write personal experience stories from the first person, as I did with Deo Miller in You Start with One, then you have a decision to make. How important is it for your name to be on the byline? Are you willing to become a ghost? If you write a personal experience story for Guideposts, and it’s not your story, chances are you will become a ghost. Many of the Guideposts stories are written from interviews. As an interesting sideline, Elizabeth Sherrill, a contributing editor for Guidepost, wrote The Hiding Place, The Cross and the Switchblade, and The John Hinkley Story.
Maybe you can tell that I have definite feelings regarding ghostwriting, and I refuse to do it. I will be a “with,” an “as told to,” a “prepared by,” but I will never be a ghost. I’m not saying that it is wrong, but I think it is time that those who write the articles and books get credit where credit is due.
When you see one name on a book, followed by a “with” and a second name, the first name is usually who the book is about, and the second name is the person who wrote it. If there are two names on the book and no “with,” then chances are the two authors collaborated, and both participated in the writing.
When you see a first-person story in a magazine with two authors’ names, the first name is the person who the story is about. The “as told to” is the person the story was told to and who wrote the article. Sometimes curriculum and Bible studies have no name on the cover, but inside is the name preceded by “prepared by.” That is usually the person who wrote the leader’s guide, curriculum, etc.
In our six-part blog series on “Writing Personal Experience Articles” we talked mostly about writing your own story. Yet, many people don’t have the ability to tell their own stories. That is where we, as writers, enter the scene. We can write other people’s stories for them by interviewing them.
There are a number of publications that buy personal experience stories written by people other than the author. Some markets you might consider sending your article to are: Brink Magazine, CBN.com, Charisma, Christianity Today, Christian Online, Guideposts, Light & Life, Lookout, Our Sunday Visitor, and War Cry. You can look these websites up online or purchase The Christian Writer’s Market Guide to see if your article fits their guidelines.
I’ve had the unique experience of writing a number of books from interviews. You Start with One about a ministry feeding and vocationally training children in Sri Lanka was published by Thomas Nelson in 1990. I also wrote Eyes Beyond the Horizon, the story of the Far East Broadcasting Company; Potpourri of Praise; A Special Kind of Love; and my “Rest Stops” series from interviews. My latest women’ issues books, Wounded by Words, Too Soon to Say Goodbye, and Breaking Invisible Chains, co-authored by Jeenie Gordon and Karen Kosman, published by New Hope Publishers, include many stories from interviews.
Whether you are writing articles about yourself or others, be careful not to come across as sounding too perfect. Make yourself vulnerable. Show your flaws, as well as the positive points. Paint a realistic picture when writing about other people too. Only then can your readers identify.
Before you write your personal experience story, decide what your market will be and write to that market. Read all of the magazines you have time for to become familiar with them. And don’t forget online publications. I’d suggest reading several issues of a periodical before submitting a manuscript to that magazine. Many of these have articles from recent publications and their guidelines on their websites. You can pick up freebies at writers’ conferences.
You must be comfortable with a magazine to write for it. For the Christian market, purchase The Christian Writer’s Market Guide. The personal experience markets are broken into subheadings such as adult, children, missions, pastors, young adult, and women. Also see the heading, “Interviews/Profiles” if you are writing other people’s stories.
This concludes the series on Writing the Personal Experience Article. Next week we will begin a series on Interviewing.
Write your personal experience article in an interesting style, presenting a new twist. Your story must have appeal and drama. Tell what the problem is and how to solve it. You don’t want the editor to say, “Didn’t I just read that story half an hour ago?”
Keep your story upbeat. As Christians, we live victoriously. Most publications want a happy ending and some kind of a turnaround. The story needs to go somewhere.
Now let me offer some subjects for personal experience stories used with permission and presented by Kathy Collard Miller:
- Physical healing – injuries, sickness, addictions
- Emotional healing – fear, widowhood, death of a loved one
- Relationships – friendship or family tie, overcoming an obstacle, or acceptance
- Distant past – childhood or young adult experiences, wisdom from hindsight
- Adventure – danger, suspense, foreign locations
- Conversion – how someone became a Christian
- Personality profile – interesting lives of others
- Organization or group – history or ministry
The personal experience story is generally about 1,200-1,500 words and is always true. It is usually written in the first person, because first person is more powerful. It contains three ingredients:
- Reader Identification – your readers may not have experienced exactly the same thing, but they can empathize. You want readers to be involved at the heart level. Write heart-to-heart, not head-to-head. You want to work a change in your readers’ hearts that will result in a change in their lives. Don’t preach. Involve readers on an emotional level. You do this by using fictional techniques in your nonfiction. Use anecdotes, dialogue, and description. Be specific and concrete, not abstract. Take readers on a journey with you. Make them feel and see all that is happening on the way.
You want them to say, “I couldn’t put it down. I cried. I laughed.” This is achieved by showing readers rather than telling them. Show—don’t tell.
- Take-away – what readers remember when they have forgotten the story. The take-away is what readers take from your story and use in their own lives to become better people, to move closer to God, or to realize a truth.
- Spiritual Emphasis or Reader’s Reaction – move your readers, inspire them, and arouse their emotions. You want your readers to do something when they finish reading your story. Perhaps you want them to change in some way or desire to help another individual.
Your personal experience story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many manuscripts that cross my desk don’t! You must present a problem, show conflict, and come to a resolution. Write the beginning and the end before you go back and fill in the middle. You may change some things as you go along, but you must have a game plan.
In the first paragraph of your story, you must hook the reader. Open with an exciting beginning that makes the reader want to read on. Open with the viewpoint character. Write your story as seen from one person’s viewpoint. Paint a brief picture of your main character. Show their personality. Make your readers see the characters and identify with them.
The best plumb line to use when writing the personal experience story is Guideposts, the top-selling Christian magazine with a readership of over eight million, including places it is donated such as the armed services. Guideposts considers itself a practical guide for successful living. It shows that God is with you, that He cares for you through your everyday experiences. Guideposts has contributing editors who are Jewish and Catholic too. Its purpose is to revitalize people’s faith. I suggest you check out their website and use Guideposts as a guide for other Christian publications that accept first person, personal experience stories. In the secular market, Readers Digest is the plumb line.