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. Take notes during the interview, but 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, 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 of the interview. 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 the Billy Grahams, Max Lucados, and Chuck Swindolls, 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 him. 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 on 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.