If you must…proceed with caution
Sometimes it’s beyond our control, and sometimes it’s just personal preference. But if we must rely on email, we can make the interviewing and writing process more effective. For starters, Haase suggests saying “no” to the “yes or no?”
“Open-ended questions elicit more information; if you keep it narrow, you miss out on things that may allow the story to take a different direction,” she said, adding that some of her best stories were born from a follow-up question – from the spontaneity that’s often lost in emails. She also encourages subjects to be conversational, especially those who work in academia, medicine, or another technical or jargon-filled field.
“[People] may default to how they’d write for a professional journal,” she said. Knowing this, Haase suggests sources read their answers aloud before replying so they can hear where they may be overly technical or verbose.
Marfo prompts interview subjects, where appropriate, to “stretch out their thought process in writing.” For example, starting with: “Oh, that’s a difficult question…” The nuances of how we react, how we may preface an answer, can absolutely get lost in email – and along with it, hints of personality or passion.
Pidgeon says one way to strengthen a story based primarily off an email interview is to talk to others close to the main subject, such as a mentor or relative. “Don’t be a single-sourced story. Don’t be dependent on that email for everything,” he said.
The writing process is also different when working from emailed answers. It can be tempting to highlight, copy, and paste blocks of text or – gasp! – use the entire transcript verbatim, save for an original introduction and conclusion. This seems like a time saver, but it isn’t ideal, not even for a straight Q&A format, as some things are left better to the cutting room floor. In this case, Haase says, “Flex your writing muscles a little.” She says you’ll do just fine “without using a direct quote or dry language.”
I agree with Haase wholeheartedly. If we’re merely transferring chunks of words from an inbox to a document, you could say our subjects are the ones doing the heavy lifting, almost writing the stories for us; who deserves the byline then? Where’s the craft in that?
We’re storytellers. And the best stories come from the best raw material: our curiosity, our research, our first-hand knowledge of the topic, our interest in other people, and, yes, our interviews. From there, our talent, creativity, and skill – perhaps what drew us to writing – allow us to weave things together.
“Your job [as the writer] is to choose the most compelling bits, and the person you’ve interviewed may not be the best judge,” Wotanis said. “You do that work for the reader.”
Donna Talarico, an independent writer and content marketing consultant from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions.