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Interviewing: better questions

It's hard to write a good piece without good research. And for us, a large part of that research is interviewing. That's why we put so much stock in developing good questions. I wish journalism schools would invest more instructional time helping students learn the fundamentals.

The other day, a subject asked me how I came up with such good questions.

Better questions

When I'm prepping for an interview, I work from two perspectives:

1. The angle: It's important to ask questions that will get you the story your client/editor wants. I believe that the ultimate story always presents itself in the process of researching or writing, but you've got to start somewhere. Starting with what I think is the most important thing readers should know is always effective. For instance, when we wrote researcher profiles for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, it was important to showcase why this person chose to work at UNC, his/her favorite thing about living and working here and how his/her work affected "the man on the street". That gave us a whole slew of questions right there.

2. The reader: I'm a curious person, which is a handy trait for a writer. I always put myself in the shoes of the reader and ask questions I think they'd have. If something makes me go "huh?", I'll ask about it. If another thing makes me go, "how would you do that?", I'll ask about that, too. When I'm writing about eco-friendly development practices, I know my readers know the big ideas, but what they need help with is how to execute them and how to make the practices affordable. So I ask a lot of how or how much questions.

An example

it might get loudFrom these two points of view, I start building a bank of questions. For instance, here's the interview brief I built for my interview with the director of photography for It Might Get Loud. The audience is camera folks -- from the cinematographer to the focus puller. They like hearing about cheats and tricks of the trade, as well as gear selection. So I lean heavily on those kinds of questions. My editor always likes to focus on the art and craft of filmmaking and workflow, so that's in there, too. (You can read the resulting article here.)

Pulling together a solid list of questions takes time, but the return on that investment is worth it.

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