Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Are You Asking the Right Questions for Your Writing?

I like to play games with clients. I don't mean anything nasty by this! Quite the opposite: I play games because it helps make the learning more fun.

Recently, I had a client -- a reporter -- who was having a hard time writing stories. I suspected the problem wasn't so much his writing as his interviewing skills. He didn't know how to interview effectively enough, I guessed. But I don't like to form conclusions without doing any research. So, to test the theory, I asked him to interview me.

Badda boom. His interview exposed the problem as neatly as if I'd dissected his brain and laid it out on a table before me!

Here's what happened. I asked him if he knew I was the mother of triplets, and he didn't, so I suggested he interview me about the topic. My exact instructions? "Imagine you've been asked to interview me so you can write a 500-750 word story on what it's like to be the parent of triplets."

The interview started well enough. He asked me the age and sex of the children (17; two girls and one boy.) He asked me if multiples run in my family (Yes. I have twin cousins and a set of triplets much further back.) Then he asked me if my kids all went to the same school. I told him we homeschooled our kids until they were in grade 10. He asked why and I confessed that our son is both gifted and learning disabled. And here's where things started to go off the rails.

The reporter, you see, had been trained as a teacher and had a particular interest in gifted/learning disabled kids. All of a sudden, he started asking lots of questions about my son's giftedness (music/technology) and learning disabilities (reading/math/focus). I let this line of questioning continue for about five minutes before asking, "Do you think you have enough material to write the story now?" He said he thought so, but when I pointed out that he'd veered completely off topic, he had to agree.

In truth, he had nowhere near enough interesting material on the topic he'd been assigned.

He continued with his questions, now focusing on the topic of triplets. Most of the questions were reasonable but almost all of them were questions of fact: "how do you feed three babies at once?" and "how old were they when they first slept through the night?"

Never once did he ask for my opinions or feelings about anything. Nor did he ask for anecdotes! And, trust me, I have some great ones... If he had actually written the story, I'm sure it would have been very similar to most of his other articles -- filled with dull quotes, instead of lively, action-packed ones. Yet I had plenty of interesting comments inside of me! He just didn't dig deep enough to find them.

If your writing requires you to interview others, be sure to ask questions seeking opinions and feelings. Ask: "How did that make you feel? What makes you say that? Why do you think that?"

As well, make certain you give your subject lots of feedback. Say: "Wow! That must have been interesting/frightening/rewarding/frustrating/____" (fill in your favourite adjective here.) This kind of feedback is invaluable because if you are wrong, the subject will correct you and if you are right, he or she will likely elaborate. You can't go wrong with this approach.

Finally, ask questions that force the subject to give you a real-life example or two. For example, if the reporter had asked me about whether I'd ever had second thoughts about having triplets I might have recalled a time when they were two years old and I decided to walk them to the park. The outing went well but they became tired and refused to walk home. I wound up "ferrying" back, one at a time, carrying them a few yards each so I could keep an eye on the ones left behind. It took me about an hour to walk five blocks.

It's a great story. Too bad the reporter didn't ask about it! When you do your interviews, don't view it as a fact-collecting expedition. Remember that roughly 50% of the material you collect should be stories, metaphors and opinions.

If it's not, you're not asking the right questions.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 26th 2011, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
One could also add: Before even starting to think of questions for an interview, be sure you understand exactly what your assignment is. The reporter obviously missed the fact that the parent and the parent's view or feelings were the subject, not the triplets.
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 3:46 AM
Comment by: mare4short (Fresno, CA)
The summary, 3-5 points (bulleted), may be a good idea. The story is short enough. My listing of authors embedded list: #1. Share scope of the assignment 2. Get facts 3. Get opinions and feelings. 4. Give rewarding feedback as checkpoint on direction of interview 5. Get stories, metaphors, opinions (50% of final story)
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
I read the piece fairly early this morning - after swimming a mile but before my first cup of coffee. I'm most impressed with the feelings she put into it. Five exclamation points (!) I'm a believer in candor, and I sense she really put hereself into this, holding back nothing, and we the readers are better for it. I will now be a better interviewer for having read her advice, especially because it came at me like a freight train.
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments, Alice & Anonymous. Good observations. DreamFlyer, oh my goodness, I'm embarrassed by the number of exclamation marks I used. I was trained as a journalist and my old Scottish editor would have had conniptions about my having used so many. (We were allowed ONE per story -- but only if it was absolutely necessary.) I have clearly absorbed some bad habits in more recent years. But thanks for your kind words about my not holding back. I really do try to share my life with my readers.
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Aj.Scribe (Dallas, TX)
Another grand slam home run for Daphne. I use both phrases to align my attention with the subject and the interviewee. For me, to stay focused on the subject, to be on track, I use three lines of attention to the subject at the same time. For me that is not only essential it is compulsory. First, I must remember to hear what I am asking. Second, I tag Daphne's style and similar questions that will build an emotional, social and environmental relationship into the answers. Third, and this is where I could go off track, by allowing my built up emotions at this point to redirect into what (it) is attracted to instead of focused on the subject at hand. I almost have to mystically invoke the hard work to remember to recant each answer with my expression of appreciation. When and if I can pull that off it is a match game end result worth writing about.
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 12:30 PM
Comment by: minh N. (hochiminh Viet Nam)
Thanks for a great article. I've been using Thesaurus for 1 month and find that it is really interesting
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Daphne: As a Scot living in Germany, I smiled a big appreciative smile to see you using the word "conniptions". I haven't heard that in ages.

Dreamflyer and Daphne: As a translator and reviewer who has to analyse each single nuance in a source or target text and tells exclamation-mark-happy Germans that we native speakers use them only when necessary, I did not feel at all upset by your use of exclamation marks. The article would have been a lot less expressive without them.

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