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interview

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interview

On Writing Well by William Zinsser (HarperCollins, 2006)

Definition:

A conversation in which one person (the interviewer) elicits information from another person (the subject or interviewee). A transcript or account of such a conversation is also called an interview.

The interview is both a research method and a popular form of nonfiction.


See also:

Etymology:

From the Latin, "between" + "see"

Examples and Observations:

  • The following interviewing tips have been adapted from Chapter 12 ("Writing about People: The Interview") of William Zinsser's book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 2006):
    • Choose as your subject someone whose job [or experience] is so important or so interesting or so unusual that the average reader would want to read about that person. In other words, choose someone who touches some corner of the reader's life.
    • Before the interview, make a list of questions to ask your subject.
    • Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives.
    • Take notes during the interview. If you have trouble keeping up with your subject, just say, "Hold it a minute, please," and write until you catch up.
    • Use a combination of direct quotations and summaries. "If the speaker's conversation is ragged, . . . the writer has no choice but to clean up the English and provide the missing links. . . . What's wrong . . . is to fabricate quotes or to surmise what someone might have said."
    • To get the facts right, remember that you can call [or revisit] the person you interviewed.

  • Controlling the Conversation
    "When I first began talking to people, I tended to monopolize the conversation, to steer my subject to my own interpretation of Margarett's life. Listening to my tapes, I learned that I often interrupted people just before they were about to tell me something I never would have suspected, so now I tried to let the subject guide the interview and to encourage the interviewee's anecdotes. I came to understand that I was interviewing people not to substantiate my own theories but to learn Margarett's story."
    (Honor Moore, "Twelve Years and Counting: Writing Biography." Writing Creative Nonfiction, ed. by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard. Story Press, 2001)


  • Open Questions and Closed Questions
    "When we interview, we are not extracting information like a dentist pulls a tooth, but we make meaning together like two dancers, one leading and one following. Interview questions range between closed and open. Closed questions are like those we fill out in popular magazines or application forms: How many years of schooling have you had? Do you rent your apartment? Do you own a car? . . . Some closed questions are essential for gathering background data, . . . [but] these questions often yield single phrase answers and can shut down further talk. . . .

    "Open questions, by contrast, help elicit your informant's perspective and allow for more conversational exchange. Because there is no single answer to open-ended questions, you will need to listen, respond, and follow the informant's lead. . . .

    "Here are some very general open questions--sometimes called experimental and descriptive--that try to get the informant to share experiences or to describe them from his or her own point of view:
    • Tell me more about the time when . . .
    • Describe the people who were most important to . . .
    • Describe the first time you . . .
    • Tell me about the person who taught you about . . .
    • What stands out for you when you remember . . .
    • Tell me the story behind that interesting item you have.
    • Describe a typical day in your life.
    When thinking of questions to ask an informant, make your informant your teacher."
    (Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater and Bonnie Stone-Sunstein, FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research. Prentice Hall, 1997)


  • Using and Misusing a Tape Recorder in Interviews
    "In the way that a documentary-film crew can, by its very presence, alter a scene it is filming, a tape recorder can affect the milieu of an interview. Some interviewees will shift their gaze and talk to the recorder rather than to you. Moreover, you may find yourself not listening to the answer to a question you have asked. Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice--more like a relief pitcher."
    (John McPhee, "Elicitation." The New Yorker, April 7, 2014)
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