Another nice thing about writing from interviews is it eliminates writer’s block. It’s not just you and a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen when you sit down to write. It’s you, a mound of notes, and a recorder.
The realm of manuscripts that can be written from interviews is unlimited. In 1990 I went to Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines to obtain information for my books written from interviews. But don’t forget that your best story may be in your own backyard, in your church, in your local newspaper, or in your head.
Many people have fascinating stories to tell, but they are unable to write their own stories. You can come beside them and write their stories to encourage others and bring the readers closer to the Lord.
This concludes the series on interviewing.
Some publications will want a query letter before you send your article. Here is a sample query letter:
Dear Mr. Jones:
In April, I attended the Orange County Christian Writers Conference where I met your assistant editor, Bill E. Buyer. He suggested that I query you with my idea for a 1500-word article that I feel will fit your guidelines.
For the past five years, I have volunteered in a home for unwed mothers. One sixteen year old named Sara has given me permission to write her story under a pseudonym. I feel the choices she made will help other young girls to make the right decisions regarding sex and marriage.
Sara became pregnant and considered abortion. Since she is only sixteen and a junior in high school, she did not feel she could adequately care for herself and a baby. A strange turn of events led to a harrowing experience that resulted in a decision for Sara to have her baby and to give him up for adoption.
The primary audience would be young teenage girls—particularly those considering sex outside of marriage. The secondary audience would be pregnant teens. Also, mothers and friends of girls going through the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy would benefit from this article.
This article is timely because today eight out of ten teenage girls are sexually active, and three out of ten will eventually become pregnant out of wedlock. Let me know if you would be willing to see my article, “Sara’s Song,” on speculation. I look forward to your response.
Yours in Him,
When you have finished writing an article, I recommend allowing the person interviewed to see the final draft you plan to send to a magazine editor. But don’t let the person make unnecessary changes! Some publications will want a signed release from the person interviewed before the article is published, but I think it is good to have your own release if the magazine doesn’t require it. Now, books are different. That becomes co-authoring, and a contract is involved. However, if you have other people’s stories in your book, you will want to get signed releases from each of them.
In articles, the name of the person interviewed is placed first, then “as told to” and the writer’s name. For example: “The Providential Escape” by Henry Fahman as told to Susan Titus Osborn. On leader’s guides and other pay-for-hire work, the words “prepared by” often precede the author’s name. On these kinds of projects, the author’s name usually goes inside the book or booklet, rather than on the cover. For example, Leader’s Guide for You Gotta Keep Dancin’ by Tim Hansel prepared by Susan Titus Osborn. On books, the actual author’s name is placed second after the person whose story is being told. The names are separated by “with.” For example, You Start with One, by Deo Miller with Susan Titus Osborn. If you have other people’s stories in your book, you can put their name below the title of the story they have written.
Now for the write-up of the article after your interview. Do it soon so your memory is still fresh. The colder your notes get, the less you will be able to decipher them. Plus time will dull your enthusiasm for the interviewee and the subject matter.
I take detailed notes. When I am ready to do the write-up, I transcribe my notes onto the computer. Then I listen to the digital recorder and add anything necessary that I didn’t get down on paper. I stop the recorder frequently, double checking my words for accuracy and clarity. Plus you want to be sure to capture the interviewee’s mannerisms and pet phrases
The next step is to edit, edit, edit. Trim the dialogue. Chop it to the core. Write and rewrite. Remember that the person wouldn’t need you if they could write their own story. You will have lots of material you won’t use. Ultimately, you may even have enough for two articles. I had 26 cassette tapes (this was before digital recorders) from Deo Miller in my bag of oysters, and I was searching for the pearls that would make interesting stories for the book, You Start with One. It isn’t easy to find the pearls.
Your article or chapter must have a focus and must stay on that focus. It must include a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you reach the climax, be brief and be gone.
Decide whether your article is going to be written in the first person or the third person. All Guideposts articles are first person, but a number of magazines prefer third person. Study your markets before writing the actual article.
First person has more depth. You can step into the individual’s mind, heart, and eyes and tell it from the individual’s viewpoint. If you write personal experience stories from the first person viewpoint, then you have a decision to make. How important is it for your name to be on the byline? If your name does not appear, you are considered a ghostwriter.
Personally, I prefer to have my name on everything I write. I choose not to ghostwrite. I feel it is misleading to the reader if the true author’s name doesn’t appear somewhere on the work.
In articles, the name of the person interviewed is placed first, then “as told to” and the writer’s name. For example: “The Providential Escape” by Henry Fahman as told to Susan Titus Osborn. On leader’s guides and other pay-for-hire work, the words “prepared by” often precede the author’s name. On these kinds of projects, the author’s name usually goes inside the book or booklet, rather than on the cover. For example, Leader’s Guide for You Gotta Keep Dancin’ by Tim Hansel prepared by Susan Titus Osborn. On books, the actual author’s name is placed second after the person whose story is being told. The names are separated by “with.” For example, You Start with One, by Deo Miller with Susan Titus Osborn.
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 we find people to interview? I wouldn’t recommend looking for famous people like 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 folder on your computer 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.
Also keep a 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.