9 Journalist Interview Tips from a Successful Freelance Writer

Make A Living Writing

Have you been struggling to interview sources for your freelance articles? Then these 9 interview tips are for you.

These journalist interview tips will help boost your interviewing confidence and make you better prepared to take your freelance article to the next level!

I compiled these because I have found that many freelance writers are struggling to differentiate themselves in the freelance writing world right now. The problem is many do not have the journalism background that helps you step into higher-level content that relies on interviewing original sources.

Because after all, more companies want to create and publish original content that can not be easily duplicated.

But how do writers grapple with all the fine points of finding interview sources and then get them to not just talk, but say something fascinating?

For a freelance writer, the difference between getting lukewarm quotes and sparkling, informative quotes could be the difference between securing $100 articles and $2,000 articles.

But what are the interview secrets you need if you don’t have a journalism background?

I’ve shared some interview tips before, but I’ve learned there are some fine points of interviewing that new writers often don’t know. Here’s what I’ve learned doing hundreds of interviews over the course of 12 years of staff-writing jobs:

Don’t Treat an Interview the Same As An Email

Emails are emails, and interviews involve speaking to people either on the phone, through a video call, or in person.

The idea that emails are equivalent to interviews seems to be spreading like a virus lately, as writers come into the field from routes that don’t pass through journalism school or a newspaper staff job.

But you shouldn’t email sources your questions and then use their email responses as your quotes unless you absolutely must — it isn’t good practice unless the source is expecting that outcome.

If you do quote from an email, you must cite it appropriately, as in: “Thank you for reaching out,” said Joe Shmoe in an email response. Better-paying markets will expect real interviews and might be upset if they discover you’ve tried to pass off email transcribing as interviewing.

In any case, you want to talk to people live – you’ll have a chance to ask more follow-up questions and tease out the really good stuff.

Start by Establishing Rapport with Your Source

In the first weeks of my first staff-writing job, I went on a road trip with my editor to Vancouver, B.C. Our publication covered home improvement retail, and we went to visit the owner of a large lumberyard chain at his company headquarters.

My New York-based editor conducted the interview, and I was astonished to find that he didn’t really ask him much! We had traveled all this way, and they basically just shot the breeze for a half-hour. Afterward, I asked him why he hadn’t tried to learn more about the man’s business or asked him any tough questions.

“Oh, I just came here to build my relationship with him,” my editor replied. “Now, any time I need to know something such as what’s going on in this market, I can always call and ask him, because I took the time to come out here and meet him in person, and get to know him.”

Don’t be the sort of reporter who vacuums facts from a sources’ head and then leaves them a spent husk, never to return again. \

Instead, build a relationship and cultivate sources you can use again. See if you can find a personal level on which to connect – a hobby, your kids, where you went to college. The more relationships you build with sources, the easier your work gets over time.

And you never know when you’ll be writing on a similar topic again.

Remember Your Source is Probably Just As Nervous as You Are

Often, new writers tell me they’re petrified about picking up the phone and making that interview call. Later, they often report back that the source seemed as nervous as they were!

Remember that interview subjects may be worried about how they’ll appear in print and nervous they will say the wrong thing and misrepresent their company.

So before you pick up the phone, take a big breath and relax. Your calm manner will help your source relax, too.

Be Over-Prepared

There is nothing that screams lack of preparation like this introduction when interviewing a source, “So, tell me about your business! What do you do exactly? I haven’t had a chance to look at your website yet.”

Really? There’s just no excuse for that.

Before you approach your source, take the time to learn about your source and your topic, and come prepared to ask some informed questions. Page through their website, take a look at their LinkedIn, make note of anything notable that stands out. (Also, make sure your Linkedin is in good shape.)

That way you won’t waste sources’ time, and you might be able to work with them again.

Be Brief With Your Questioning

One of the most useful interview secrets I like to share is, the amount of time you spend with a source should be proportional to how much space they will get in your story.

Unless you’re writing a 3,000-word feature profile of someone, you shouldn’t take more than a half-hour or 45 minutes, in my view. If you just need a few quick quotes from someone, take 15 minutes and be done with it.

I used to know a reporter who’d do every interview in person and spend multiple hours with each subject. Many would later call the paper to complain about how he had wasted their time, after seeing that large time investment translated into one quote in the story!

Be respectful of people’s time and don’t give them unrealistic expectations of how much you’ll quote them.

Have Your Questions Prepared Ahead of Time

You should have a goal in mind before you start your interview. What is the end result you are hoping to achieve? From that goal craft questions that will help your source get there.

Most sources will need a little prompting to give you the information you need. Make sure your questions are open-ended and include additional possible questions to help sources expand on their answers.

Remember an open-ended question requires an explanation, and cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. Ask questions that encourage reflection and explanation rather than shut down the conversation.

Journalist Interview Tips

Use The Interview to Get More Story Ideas

The end of an interview is a great time to learn more about your topic and find additional ideas for future stories.

End your conversation with one or two questions like these: “What else is going on in your industry right now? Who are the interesting new thought leaders? What will happen next year? What was the big topic of discussion at the last conference you attended?”

Forget your question list at the end, and find out what’s on their mind. You’ll often leave with your next query letter ready to write.

Use Technology for Help

If you are just planning for a short interview for just a quote or two, then a phone call will most likely be your best option. But if you are planning to talk for 30 minutes or longer with your source then it is a good idea to schedule a video call using either Zoom, Google Meet, or another service.

Whatever tool you are comfortable using, make sure to clearly specify what type of interview you are looking to schedule. Set the proper expectations ahead of time, either by asking for the best phone number to call them and then sending a calendar invite, or else create the video conferencing link ahead of time and include that in your calendar invite.

Make it clear what type of call and how much time you are asking for.

If you are planning on having a video call that will be 30 minutes or longer, you might want to record the call to help with your note-taking. Before you begin, make sure to ask if you can record the call if you think recording the conversation would be helpful. If you have never recorded a video call before, do a trial run with a friend before you record in a professional setting.

Expect to Follow Up

Some writers I’ve mentored are terrified they’ll forget to ask something, and then have to endure the mortal embarrassment of calling the source back again. They worry they’ll never be able to get another response.

But unless you’re interviewing a reclusive billionaire who’s giving his only interview in decades or some such, this fear is really unfounded. No source is going to yell at you for asking a follow-up question. In fact, callbacks are routine.

Often, your editor might ask for a new fact that would require a callback, anyway.

My normal final comment to sources is, “What is the best way to reach you if I have any additional questions when I’m writing this up?”

Need More Help?

Check out these resources with more interview secrets for you to get more help conducting interviews for your clients.

How to Write a Profile: 8 Tips for a Compelling Piece

Phone Interview Tips: 5 Strategies for Freelance Writers

36 Comments

  1. Shannon

    This is a wonderful resource, Carol – thank you again! It never occurred to me the source would be as nervous as I feel (I have often been in the “source” shoes for my other job, and you are right – I do often feel worried about how I will appear in print or whether my interviewer and I will “click”). Now the shoe is on the other foot, it would seem, and they fit, well, very much the same!

  2. Shital Bhalani

    Good point about reviewing the recording. I remember having a great conversation with an interview source only to find out a week later I’d forgotten to plug in the phone adapter for the recorder. I listened to a long, rather boring one-sided conversation. Luckily, I’d taken notes at the same time, though not as many as I’d need. So I went back for “follow up” questions, in email, and asked the person to clarify a few points — ones by then I’d known would be in the article.

    And it’s usually okay to say “My recorder worked fine, but I didn’t connect it to the phone line — can I just ask a few questions for clarity?” People are almost always glad to hear they’re not the only ones who screw up.

    Another thing I do to speed up the interview (and writing) process is to formulate questions that will become my article subheads. That means I have to think a bit further into the story’s key elements before I get going, but it really helps me focus the questions and get a good story on paper. That doesn’t mean I don’t let the story go where it needs to, but that I have some direction before I start.

    Thanks – Shital

  3. Sarah

    Really valuable information here! It’s so true you can get a lot more from a live or phone interview – but they take much more time. Especially if you have to drive a distance for a live interview, seems like it’s only worth it if you are getting paid pretty decently. That said, I agree that body language can say so much more than you’d ever get via phone or email.

    When I was reporting for an environmental newspaper (and often short on time because I did EVERYTHING), I often found myself resorting to email to save time. But my quotes suffered. I also realized that part of the reason I was doing this was because of that irrational fear of calling the interviewee. But – once i made the call, it was so always just fine!

    And I often got my best quotes out of that final question “Is there anything else I haven’t thought to ask about?” (Although it usually meant another 15 minutes of talking…:-) )

    • Carol Tice

      One of my rules on interviews is “think before you drive.”

      While you want to speak to sources rather than emailing, it’s rarely worth the drive time to do in-person interviews, unless you need to capture details about the person’s home or work environment or you’re doing an indepth profile. As you noticed, it really dings your hourly rate.

  4. Anthony

    Carol,
    My question is not directly related to interviewing per se, but I know you do a good deal of business reporting and writing so I figured you may know the answer. From my research I notice there is no consensus in terms of start and end dates for the various generations, especially once you get past Generation X.
    As writers, where can we turn for ‘definitive’ (I’m using that term loosely) answers on cultural issues (like how to describe what generation an interview or feature subject is from) that aren’t really a matter of fact?
    I don’t want readers to think I don’t know what I’m talking about if they have a different view on what defines, say Generation X. I’m very interested to know what you and your other readers think about issues like this where it is hard to find a consistent answer while doing background research. As always, thanks for the helpful tips you provide (I’m actually using one now to turn one interview into two articles!).

    • Carol Tice

      Try the government — Bureau of Labor Statitics or U.S. Census. Pretty irrefutable data there.

    • Anthony

      Thanks Carol! I use both of those sources for demographic information all the time and they never crossed my mind for this particular article.

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