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Freelance Writing > How Writers Interview Experts and Witnesses for Magazine Articles

How Writers Interview Experts and Witnesses for Magazine Articles

Writers interview experts, witnesses and other sources for information. Interviews also make articles, books and blog posts more interesting. Direct quotations and real-life experiences are exactly what writers need to make a boring, dry topic more interesting and relevant to readers. These tips on how to interview experts and witnesses will help you find and talk to the best sources.

I also tackle one of my favorite questions about interviewing sources. Should writers use email to interview experts and witnesses? As a freelance writer, I interview sources over email 90% of the time. Email interviews are not a best practice for freelancers who are writing exposes, feature articles, or personality profiles. But if you’re writing an article about something general or uncomplicated (such as how to interview someone famous for a magazine article or even how to get published in in Reader’s Digest), you can use email to interview sources.

Here are 10 “best practices” (tips) on how to interview experts. Below that are a few benefits and drawbacks of email interviews with experts, professionals and witnesses for freelance magazine and newspaper articles.

These insights are from a panel of professional journalists and freelance writers at the Writer’s Craft Fair hosted by the BC Association of Magazine Publishers.

10 Tips for Writers Interviewing Experts and Witnesses

When you interview someone for an article – whether it’s a NASA astrophysicist or your dear old dad – always write down or record your time together. Direct quotations will bring your writing to life, make the topic more interesting, and reveal the expert’s personality.

One of the reasons I prefer email interviews is that I have the expert or source’s exact words in writing. This avoids the “she said/he said” trap that some writers fall into. I’ve never had to prove an expert or source said something, but I don’t write articles that are controversial.

How to Interview Expert Sources for Articles and Books
Writers Interview Expert Sources

1. Know your own emotional triggers

Certain topics are taboo (money, politics, religion, sex), which can make you feel awkward when asking sources certain questions. Unless, of course, you’re writing an article about finances, political issues, religion or relationships. When you feel uncomfortable talking about a certain topic, such as how much money freelance writers or content creators make, remember that the expert you are interviewing is probably very comfortable with the topic. After all, he or she is the expert! If they weren’t able or willing to talk about something they should know about, you shouldn’t be interviewing them. Here’s the bottom line: when you’re interviewing a source for an article, make sure your own issues aren’t preventing you from asking direct, relevant questions.

2. Share a little about yourself to establish rapport

Making a connection with your source with a shared interest, similar like or dislike, or even a person you both know can be a valuable way to establish rapport. A writer’s main focus should be on interviewing the source, but both professional experts and regular folks will tell you more if you have something in common. They’ll also give you more details, which will bring your book or article alive.

3. Let there be “spaces in your togetherness”

One of my favorite quotations is Rumi’s “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” This tip for interviewing sources simply means stop talking. Even a five second pause can feel endless – but those pools of silence will eventually reveal gems of information. Give your experts time to think, to reflect, and to figure out how to say what they want. Get comfortable with silence; it’s a powerful tool for encouraging experts and other sources to speak up. it’s a great way to discover fascinating tidbits.

4. Do a few hours of research in advance

Dig around in your source’s past. Discover small, seemingly insignificant details about his or her life. Then, ask him or her for clarification on certain activities or quotations. Show that you’ve spent some time doing your research. This a simple tip for interviewing sources for articles that facilitates trust and shows that you’re eager, smart and prepared. Preparing in advance by researching your source’s background will also build your own interest in the topic.

5. Get the basic information right

Make sure you know your source’s correct name, profession, education, location, family status, hobbies – whatever is most relevant to the article or book you’re writing. Getting basic facts wrong is a sign of carelessness or sloppiness, and could affect your future relationship with the expert source. Errors also decrease your chances of landing another magazine assignment from the editor or getting your book published.

6. Prepare questions in advance, but…

Have a list of questions to ask your expert about the article or book topic. The best and most successful writers prepare too many questions because they’re curious! But, don’t hesitate to ask different questions when you’re actually conducting the interview. The more experience you get as a writer who interviews expert sources, the easier it’ll be to recognize when the discussion isn’t relevant for the article or book. When you discover you are off track, return to the foundation questions that you prepared in advance of the interview.

7. Edit the expert’s direct quotations for clarity and brevity

Even the most professional sources and experts talk in circles. They use many “um’s” and “like’s” and “you knows” in conversation. When a writer quotes an expert source directly, the writer does not include those extra bits. Unless, of course, they add something to the book or article. Sometimes a source’s mannerisms add flavor and depth to the writer’s work. Never change the meaning or essence of what the expert or witness said. Simpy ensure that direct quotations make sense.

8. Tell your source that you are recording the interview

Some journalists or freelance writers don’t tell their sources that the interview is being recorded. An experienced writer may assume that everyone knows that interviews are recorded as a best practice for journalism and even book writing. Don’t be the writer who assumes anything about the expert! Always inform your source before recording the interview.

Are you writing about love or marriage? Read 10 Tips for Writing Relationship Articles and Blog Posts.

9. Ask for leads to other relevant sources, places, or experiences

I’ve interviewed over 12 experts, professionals and laypeople for one magazine article. Everyone has a different perspective and experience with the topic; a good writer finds and uses as many relevant insights as possible. The best books and articles include both sides of an issue, to show readers more depth and complexity. One source or expert is rarely enough for a solid magazine article or informative book. How do you find more professional sources to interview? Ask your interview subjects for recommendations or suggestions. Even visiting a place can be a valuable source of additional information (even thought it’s kinda hard to interview a place like a mountain or a fruit such as a kumquat).

10. At the end of the interview, asked what you missed

3 great questions at the end of an interview:

  1. “What would surprise readers to learn about X?”
  2. “What do you wish you knew about X before you started?”
  3. “Is there anything I missed that you think people ought to know?”

As we’re wrapping up the interview, I remind my experts that they may remember more information later. I invite them to email me even if they think the new info may not be relevant to the article or book.

Should writers use email to do interviews?

I’m an introverted blogger prefers the big picture (the forest) over the details (the trees). As such I prefer email interviews. I find that interviewing a source or expert in person or even on the phone is time-consuming and draining. I have never conducted an interview over Skype, Zoom, or other online platforms.

If you’re a writer who believes that direct face-to-face email interviews are better than email interviews, I’d agree 100% with you! Although, it depends on how you define “better.” Email interviews are not a professional journalists best practice, but they’re perfect for freelance writers like me. I write general, tips-based, nonfiction magazine articles and blog posts. In-person interviews are almost never necessary.

5 Reasons Writers Use Email to Interview Sources

  1. Email is efficient, effective, and easy.
  2. Email interviews are more accurate because the information is easily verifiable. I can quote a source’s exact words without worrying about misunderstanding or misinterpreting information.
  3. Email is a fast way to interview several different experts or sources at the same time.
  4. Professional experts, sources and witnesses are busy. Email interviews give them the opportunity to think through their answers in advance and write me at their convenience.
  5. Email interviews give me more time to do other things, and don’t drain my energy.

The articles I write don’t require in-depth discussions, personal descriptions, or even that much verification. Most of my magazine articles and all of my blog posts are based on email interviews (if an expert or source is quoted). For example, How to Avoid Making Foolish Mistakes With Magazine Editors is the result of an email interview with the editor-in-chief of Vancouver’s alive magazine.

4 Tips for Conducting Email Interviews

  1. Don’t email an expert by email if the info you require is complex, emotional, personal, or controversial. Email interviews work best with about 7 questions. Sometimes I ask 10 questions, and invite the expert source to answer the ones that make the most sense to them. If your article or book is straightforward and general, an email interview is probably sufficient. Most round up and “top ten” articles are perfectly suited for email interviews. That said, however, direct quotations from sources really do make writing more interesting to read.
  2. Consider the nature of the article or book you are writing. Emailing sources is fine if you’re conducting an opinion poll, survey or questionnaire. Questions that are direct and simple – and that require “yes or no” , “true or false”, or “choose A, B, or C” – answers are perfect for email interviews. These questions rarely require telephone calls or face-to-face visits to experts.
  3. Work with your expert sources. Some experts I’ve approached for my articles said they prefer telephone interviews, not email. In most cases I simply find another source to interview. Though I have conducted both in-person and telephone interviews, I prefer the convenience and agility of email.
  4. Consider your readers’ preferences. Are you writing an author personality profile for Writer’s Digest and or collecting writing tips from famous writers like Stephen King or JK Rowling? Do an in-person interview. Your readers will love the details you can add to the article or book. Seeing writers in person will give you information, mannerisms, nuances, style, facial expressions, and environment that will make your article or book more interesting.

Finding time to interview an expert face-to-face can be difficult. Interviewing a source in person can also be awkward or uncomfortable if you don’t actually like the person or feel comfortable talking to him or her! You also have to ensure that your recording device does not fail, and have a back-up recording method.

In-person interviews give both writers and readers a much more accurate sense of the person or place, but email interviews are easier. Which do you prefer?

If you want to write for newspapers or magazines but don’t know what to write about, read 11 Most Popular Types of Magazine Articles – Print & Online.


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8 thoughts on “How Writers Interview Experts and Witnesses for Magazine Articles”

  1. Asking thoughtful and engaging questions can help uncover unique insights and provide valuable content for your readers.

    I’m an author and journalism teacher. I encourage interviewers to ask these questions when interviewing authors:

    What inspired you to write this book? This question delves into the author’s creative process and motivations behind their work. It provides readers with insights into the inspiration behind the story, characters, or themes explored in the book. Additionally, it allows the author to share personal anecdotes or experiences that influenced their writing journey, creating a deeper connection with readers.

    Can you share a memorable moment or experience from your writing journey? Asking about memorable moments or experiences during the writing journey allows the author to reflect on significant milestones, challenges overcome, or unexpected discoveries. It provides readers with behind-the-scenes insights into the author’s process, struggles, and triumphs, fostering a deeper appreciation for the craft of writing and the dedication required to bring a book to life.

    What message or emotion do you hope readers take away from your book? This question invites the author to discuss the themes, messages, or emotions they aimed to convey through their writing. It provides readers with insights into the deeper layers of the book and encourages reflection on its impact and relevance.

    Additionally, it allows the author to share their perspective on the broader significance of their work and its potential to resonate with readers on a personal or universal level.

    By asking these questions, you can engage the author in meaningful discussions that provide valuable insights and perspectives for your blog post interview. Additionally, consider tailoring your questions to the specific themes, style, or audience of the author’s book to ensure relevance and resonance with your readers.

    Try asking these questions. They’ll add a layer to your interview that will be interesting to readers.

  2. Hi Thandie ~ I’m glad you found this article when you searched for tips on interviewing sources and experts for articles! Yes, I’ll try to find time to look at your website — but be patient. Time is a scarce commodity these days 🙂

  3. Thanks, this was a great source of info. Did a Google search in this came right up! Exactly what I needed to know. I’m a aspiring freelance writer and need all the help I can get, so if you do have any spare time, please can you have a look at my website – it’s an online writing portfolio. You feedback would be most appreciated!

    Thanks again!

  4. Thanks for your comment, George — I hope these tips for interviewing sources make a difference in your next article!
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..6 Ways to Keep Your Blog High in Google’s Search Engine Results =-.

  5. Laurie,

    Well there you have it. All writers should pay attention here because no matter what kind of writing you normally do, there will be a time when you need to interview someone.

    Personally, I’ve always been very uncomfortable interviewing because I know I suck at asking the right questions. This set of tips should get me on the right track and I’ll keep them at heart.

    .-= Tumblemoose´s last blog post ..Positively Excited About the New Blog of the Week =-.

  6. My preference has always been phone interviews. I had open-ended questions that needed good explanations, but trying to take notes while I was face-to-face with my experts didn’t work well. On the phone, I can concentrate on their answers, typing them as I go. (Of course, it helps that I type 90 wpm!)

    I’m about to send out several requests for e-mail interviews, though, and I appreciate the validation that there’s a right time and place for each method. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for your comment, Michelle! I’m really curious – why did it go horribly? If you want to share, I’d love to know! (enquiring minds and all that 🙂 ).

    I just did a brief phone interview the other day — and found that it took about four times as long to get information as email would have. It really depends on the article or story you’re writing, and the expert or source.

    Maybe there’s an article in here somewhere, for a writing magazine? It’s been done before I’m sure, but there might be a new angle here…..

  8. I did my first expert interview by telephone last Friday and it went horribly, to be fair I don’t blame the medium but an email interview would probably have been less painful.