What can you learn about a person with just a few key questions? Can you unearth an early memory? Prompt a funny anecdote? Or just find out more about a regular day in their life? Interviews give a writer the colorful and informative material they need to craft a story. Whether it be for a feature article, a biography, or even to ensure a fictional tale is historically accurate—interviews are the oft invisible skeleton around which a narrative is built. Developing compelling questions and inspiring a subject to open up about her experiences is an art form in itself.
This month, dazzle us with your questions and the answers they sparked. Here's what we are asking you to do: 1) Interview someone you know, and transcribe the conversation (write out the questions and answers). 2) Submit your transcript, as well as a 3) one-paragraph reflection on the interview process (see guidelines below).
Want to see what we mean by a "transcribed interview"? Check out our blog, which features interviews with our guest judges and featured writers, like this one with Jason Starlight.
The Art of the Interview Guidelines
KNOW THE NUTS & BOLTS. This competition requires that you interview someone you know, transcribe the conversation (write out the questions and answers), and write a one-paragraph reflection on the experience.
START EARLY. The logistics involved in interviewing a subject means that you need more time than usual: start thinking now about someone you know who you’d like to interview. Once you have a subject in mind, reach out and set up a time (or two) to talk.
FIND A SUBJECT. How do you decide on someone to interview? The answer might be dictated by the piece of writing you’re currently drafting. Perhaps you’re working on a World War II novel, and your history teacher could offer valuable insights. Or perhaps you’re writing a feature article about your school’s debate team and the unlikely captain has been key to the team’s success. If you’re not working on a piece that requires an interview, then talking to someone about their life can provide all the inspiration needed for your next masterpiece. Ponder these questions: Who have you always admired? Who might have an interesting story to tell? Who has done something unexpected in their life (with their career, money, free time, etc.) Finally, don’t assume you know all there is to know about an immediate family member! Sometimes just sitting down with someone and taking the time to ask the right questions can lead to incredible insights and stories.
DO YOUR RESEARCH: Before you start composing interview questions, gather as much information as you can. Read, listen, or watch other interviews to get ideas for what questions you might ask, and how to stick to an idea, without sticking to a script; immerse yourself in articles or books about your subject or their work/pastime; talk to other people who are familiar with your subject. All of this information will inform your questions and help you dig beneath the surface. If your subject is a local tennis star who’s been interviewed a thousand times before, this research will help you develop questions that haven’t already been asked. If your subject is a shy recluse who doesn’t like opening up, this research will help guide your questions so that you can put them at ease. If you’re interviewing your great-grandmother, studying the time period she grew up in—and even the neighborhood where she lived as a girl—will help you develop pertinent and insightful questions.
PREPARE IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE: Before you conduct your interview, consider whether there are other ways you could gather information. For example, might you be able to shadow or observe your subject in their element? If your subject is a gymnastics coach, could you watch her running drills with her athletes at the gym? Getting an up-close look at how your subject operates in the world will help you develop questions that are specific to who she is and how she works. You may also kill two birds with one stone and try to conduct the interview at a place that lends itself to insight: interview a baker at her bakery, a teacher in his classroom, a hockey player at the ice arena, etc.
DEVELOP YOUR QUESTIONS. Write out your interview questions in advance. The more open-ended, the better. Rather than asking your subject to answer yes/no questions, get them to fill in the holes by telling stories. “What makes you like being a rock star?” or “What’s your first memory of being on stage?” will elicit much more interesting answers than “Do you like being a rock star?” In addition to asking open-ended questions, consider how to begin and how to end. What can you ask in the beginning to put your subject at ease and build a sense of trust? And how can you end the interview in a way that allows your subject to reflect on something you may not have thought to ask: “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
DECIDE WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT: Look through your drafted questions and see if they reflect what you find most interesting about your subject. Have you missed elements of their life that seem relevant or unexpected? For brainstorming ideas, check out the resource “Life Histories: Asking the Right Interview Questions”. Underline your must-ask questions ahead of time, and double check your notes at the end of the interview to make sure you’ve covered your bases.
ASK PERMISSION: At the beginning of the interview, ask to record the interview. It will be much easier to submit an edited transcription for this competition if you have an audio recording. You can use a traditional tape recorder or a smart phone. If this isn’t possible or isn’t okay with your subject, then take careful notes, jotting down as much as possible.
DON'T STICK TO THE SCRIPT: Let yourself be surprised. If you’re curious about an answer, ask your subject to tell you more, rather than sticking with the follow-up question you’d prepared. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eric Nalder says, “move toward your most important questions, but “don't get stuck. A really great interview might be one that completely changes your story. Seek the truth, not what you believe to be the truth.” The conversation you have with your subject, as well as the setting in which the interview takes place, will undoubtedly lead to questions you couldn’t have anticipated. “Tell me the story of that photograph on your desk,” for example, isn’t a question you could have prepared in advance.
USE THE PHONE AS A BACK-UP: If you can't interview your subject in person, try to transport yourself to their setting. Ask them to describe where they are in detail, and be prepared to follow-up with other questions: “Why do you choose to write in the basement of the library?” or “How does your dog’s company influence your work?”
FOLLOW-UP: Ask your subject if it’s okay to follow-up with a phone call or email if any other questions arise. This happens a good 90% of the time: you start transcribing and think, “Arggh, if only I’d asked…” Even if you don’t have additional questions, it’s always nice to follow-up with a thank you.
TRANSCRIBE: Listen back through your interview, and type out both the questions you asked, and the responses from your subject.
REVIEW AND SHARPEN. Read through your transcription and hone in on the story. If there are filler questions, or dead-end answers, delete these from your transcript so that what you enter in the competition represents the most interesting parts of the interview. Same thing goes for filler speech. As long as the “umms”, “ahhs”, “you knows”, and “likes”, aren’t pertinent to what your subject is saying, you can take them out—just make sure you’re not changing the overall meaning with these deletions.
WRITE YOUR REFLECTION. In a paragraph, tell us about the interview process and how you plan to shape your transcript into a piece of writing. Need some ideas? You may try reflecting on the following: What questions did you add spontaneously? What were you surprised to learn? What did you learn about your subject just by watching? What did you find most challenging and what came most naturally?
How to Utilize Expert and Peer Reviews
Getting feedback on your interview questions could be very helpful before you actually conduct the interview! For an expert review, submit a draft of your questions by Monday October 9th. Our team of authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals will get back to you with feedback. Or publish your drafted questions at any point during the competition to get feedback from your peers.
Who is Eligible?
Young writers ages 13-18
600 – 1,000 words
Damian Thompson, The Conversation
Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s
website and blog)
Runner up: $50
Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s
website and blog)
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant(s) will receive $100, and the best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday October 9th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
October 2: Competition Opens
October 9: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
October 13: Reviews returned to Writers
October 18: Final Submissions Due
October 27: Winners Announced
Our Novel Writing Competition opens Monday, November 6th.
Stay tuned for more details!