Thursday, August 25, 2022

Interview Your Way To A Better Story

By Betsy Ellor

Research is part of all my writing projects be they fiction or nonfiction, novels, blog posts, or picture books. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing research is interviewing people. Experts provide details you can’t get from reading and nothing will inspire your writing more than talking with someone who is passionate about a topic.

I interviewed elementary school science teachers for my picture book, My Dog Is NOT A Scientist (out spring 2023 from Yeehoo Press). The story is about emotional resilience while also teaching the scientific method to young readers. Talking to educators helped me understand my topics the way children ages 4 to 9 would understand them. It also boosted my enthusiasm for the storytelling. 

Interviewing someone can seem intimidating, especially if you’re an introvert like me. For years I did regular author interviews for Spine and Creative North Shore and I was nervous every time, but every time I walked away informed, revved up, and ready to write. What follows are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about how to do a fantastic interview.

Define the Purpose of the Interview

You will get more out of an interview if you clearly understand both your purpose and the interviewee's purpose and work to achieve both. When I interviewed teachers for My Dog Is NOT A Scientist, I had two goals, to understand the topic and get to know my audience. My interviewees had a purpose, too. Their purpose was to share their enthusiasm for the subject matter. When I did author profiles my goal was to find a unique angle on each author's story that brought variety to the blogs I wrote. The goal of the authors I interviewed was to promote themselves and their work. Most interviews have a limited window of time; being purpose-driven will ensure you use that time effectively. You never want to get to the end of an interview and realize you never asked the big questions.  

Do Background Research

Don’t waste your time or theirs asking questions that are easily discoverable on the internet. Read up on the interviewee and the subject matter ahead of time. If your interviewee has written relevant books or articles, read those. Doing your research shows respect for your interviewee’s time and will help you generate interview questions. An interview should be a chance to deepen your understanding; it should never be a substitute for doing your own research.  

Make a Good First Impression

Interviewees are going to be much more generous with their time and knowledge if you seem professional. Choose a suitable spot for the interview: a quiet coffee shop, a clean Zoom background, or an undistracted place for a phone call. Dress suitably. Start on time. Be comfortable with any technology you’re using. These small details show respect for the work you’re doing and will, in turn, make them confident that their investment of time is worth it. If you’re a new author, you might not feel professional, but you are a professional even if you’re not getting paid yet. Preparing like a professional will help you kick that imposter syndrome out the door so you can focus on doing a great interview.

Develop a Rapport but Get to the Point

You need to take time to develop a rapport with the interviewee, so they are comfortable enough to talk to you. The amount of warm-up needed depends on how sensitive the interview topic is. If you’re discussing a vulnerable time in someone’s life you need a significant warm-up. If you’re discussing the mechanics of dump trucks - probably not. Once you’ve warmed up, though, dig right in. Don’t be vague. Don’t waste time. Ask the questions you really want to ask.

Ask the Right Questions

The trick to doing a great interview is asking purpose-driven questions broad enough to get information you didn’t know to ask for. Some of your questions must serve the specific goals of the interview, while others fish for surprising details. Try to phrase even your specific question in a way that allows the interviewee to expand on their answers as much as they want. Here are a few categories of questions to get you started:


Your background research should help you generate questions to get the information you need to achieve your goals. These types of questions will be the bulk of your interview.

Follow-up questions

Even if you’re recording the interview, keep a notebook handy to jot down anything you want to come back to for clarification or further information.

Clarification questions

For complex topics or stories, even if you think you understand what the interviewee said, take a moment to repeat back to them what you think they said and ask them if you got it right. 


Experts can bring human feeling to the topic you’re researching. Be aware of that. Take notes on it. What specific word choices do they use to describe the topic? What is their body language when they answer? Ask for sensory details - the smell, sounds, feel, taste, or sight - that you can weave into your story to bring it to life.


Keep your ears out for anecdotes and quotes. If you’re writing non-fiction, quotes and anecdotes help the reader feel like they are in the room listening to the interview. If you’re writing fiction the way your interviewee speaks might inspire your written dialogue and inform your character development.

Leads to other sources

Ask for other sources where you might learn more. Experts are the best people to ask for recommendations of books, media, and other people to interview to further your research. 


More often than not, humans listen in order to prepare what they want to say, instead of really listening to fully understand those around us. When you’re doing an interview, active listening is critical. Pause your inner monologue. Make eye contact. Lean in. Turn off distractions. Record the interview so you aren’t racing to write. Most important: shelve your judgments while they speak. You can evaluate what they say later. For now, focus on fully understanding what they mean from their perspective. 

No Really LISTEN

We humans also typically race to fill any moment of silence before it becomes “awkward.” When you’re doing an interview, fight that urge. Obviously, you want to keep things moving, but holding back allows the interviewee to volunteer unique details or open a topic that takes the interview in inspiring new directions. 

End with Open Questions

Wrap up the interview with open questions that allow the interviewee to accomplish any goals they haven’t accomplished. For example:

-          Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to make sure we talk about?

-          What is something you want the world to know about <Topic>?

-          What do you think is the most misunderstood element of <Topic>?

-          What does the future hold for<Topic>?

Share Next Steps

Let the interviewee know what happens next. Will they get to read what you’re writing before it’s published? (Usually no). Will you send them their quotes to fact-check? (Usually yes). When will the article/book come out? How will you let them know it’s out?  Be honest. If I’m researching for a book that doesn’t have a publisher yet I let them know that it’s a process and it may or may not lead to anything. Setting realistic expectations is better than promising things you can’t deliver.

Hype Them

People love to be noteworthy. Ask your interviewee for their social media handles and post about your interview both when you do the interview as well as when it’s published. Mention them in your acknowledgments. Note them when you talk about the book. Your interviewee probably isn’t getting anything else out of the interview so make sure you appreciate them publicly. 


I used to be intimidated by interviewing people, but now it is my favorite way to do research. I’ve spoken to interesting people and discovered details I never would have found with other forms of research. Take these tips and go do your own great interviews!

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