How to Interview for Non-Fiction Magazines and Books: 17 Tips for Ease and Success!

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I’ve been honored over the years to interview hundreds of people for articles, blogs, and books! A few of my non-fiction projects are Life, In Spite of Me and Plain Faith. Throughout the years I’ve learned how to create a better interview—one that will make the subject comfortable and help me as a writer. Here are my tips!

  • Prepare. Have a short list of questions you want to ask, but don’t be afraid to follow rabbit trails. Sometimes the best stuff comes from windy, unfocused answers.
  • Meet face-to-face if you can. There’s nothing like sitting across the table from someone to start a good conversation.
  • Be at ease. When you first meet, start with small talk. Talk about the weather, the latest news, or about what happened so far in your day. Be friendly to loosen things up.
  • Start with a brain dump. When I’m working on a longer project, I don’t slam the person with questions right away. Instead I ask question that will bring about a “brain dump.” Questions like, “Tell me about your childhood” or “Where did you grow up, what was it like?” Details can be nailed down later, but it’s always interesting how someone explains the narrative of his or her life. What the person chooses to tell (or to hide) is very revealing.
  • Use a digital recorder. I record all my interviews, and I take very few notes. Make sure you always have extra batteries.
  • Keep eye contract. Using a recorder allows me to keep eye contract with the person I’m interviewing. It lets the person know I’m not only interested, but I’m willing to build a connection.
  • Use a notebook or pen for brief notes. I’ll jot down dates, important people, and sometimes the beginning of a quote. It just gives me an idea of what to watch for later when I’m transcribing the interview.
  • Keep “off the record” off the record. If the person wants to tell you something—but doesn’t want it public—honor that. Turn off the recorder and just listen. Even if you can’t use those words, you’ll receive context.
  • Don’t fill in the silence. If the person you’re interviewing pauses, don’t rush in with words. Give him or her time to think. The best stuff comes out of what’s hardest to say.
  • Debrief yourself. When you return home ask yourself, “What impacted me most?” “What made my cry?” “What made me laugh?” Then ask why.
  • Tell someone else. Find someone you trust and relate what you learned. If it’s important enough to repeat, it’s probably important enough to make it into the article or book. Then ask that person, “What stands out to you about this story?”
  • Focus on universal themes. The people we interview have interesting lives, but what part of his or her story will resonate most with others? Considering this will help you ask more-detailed questions as you progress.
  • Look for breath and depth. As you interview, don’t focus solely on the book or article. Get to know the person’s heart, message, and passion.
  • Create a character sketch. After the interview, create a character sketch of the person. What stands out? What are his or her life themes?
  • Write what’s compelling. When you sit down to write, focus on what’s compelling. Will part of the story bring others to change . . . or help them see a situation in a different light?
  • Consider your audience. What will they appreciate most? What details will mean a lot?
  • Write from your gut. You’ll have time to edit later, but write from your gut. Create scenes—like on the movie screen—and take your reader with you. You’ll be amazed by what you come up with. Your subject will be amazed, too!

How about you? Have you interviewed others for your writing? What tips do you have?

Did you hear the good news? My book The Swiss Courier (that I co-write with Mike Yorkey) is on sale! My new book Balanced is available now via Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $2.99 (digital only)!

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Comments

  1. Loved this — thank you!

  2. I wish I would have had this list back when I was writing for my local paper. I’ll have to favorite this one.

    Thanks!
    Dabney

  3. Great tips! I especially love the “Don’t fill in the silence” tip. So much going on in that silence.

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