The cornerstone of good writing is research and the most common prompt to research is a question. Who, what, where, when and how were Lesson 1 in my high school journalism class. “This story is about So-and-So who wants what?” is how I learned to focus a screenplay in college four years later. A writer can’t be afraid to ask questions, but you can’t just jump in with the first question that pops into your head either.
SELECT AN ARTICLE TYPE
Articles come in many forms and with many purposes. Before you begin writing out your questions, know what kind of article you're writing. The information you need for a travel article differs greatly from the information in a profile. A how-to will not require the depth of feature article. It is important to know what information you'll need before you draft your list of questions.
SHOOT FOR A PARAGRAPH
Once you know what to ask, carefully word your questions. Never ask a yes or no question. Instead of asking “Do you like your job?” try “Tell me some of the aspects of your job you like.” The first question gives you one word. The second can spark a paragraph.
In the same vein, try to avoid one-word answer questions, such as “When did you start working for this company?” An alternative can be “How did you come to work for this company?” Dates don't add much to the word count. Again, shoot for the paragraph.
THE RULE OF THREE
Have multiple versions of questions on sensitive subjects. In comedy, you can run the same joke three times. After that it isn't funny. The same holds for interviewing - you can visit a issue three times before you turn your subject off.
Say you have to interview two rival businessmen who have teamed up for huge event. You know they don't like each other and are at odds over many business issue, but this event, if successful, will give both of their businesses a big boost.
Ask “What effect did your rivalry have on the planning of the event?” and you'd get a firm denial and an alienated subject. Have several versions of hot-topic questions to pose at different times during the interview. “What sort of obstacles did you have to overcome in the initial organization?” “How did you coordinate all the different officials and their staffs?” “How do you imagine the planning of future events of this scope?”
KEEP HIM TALKING
Finally, try to make your questions fit into the conversation. Be prepared to scribble notes for follow up questions while your subject is answering the present one. Or better yet anticipate what kind of follow up questions your subject’s answers may spark. How? As author Paul Auster said, “The truth of the story lies in the details.” Know your subject: his job, family, etc.
Sometimes my questions take a rewrite or two to get them the way I want them, but the pay off comes when during the interview my subject blurts “Oh! That’s a good question!”
Amy Munnell is has been a freelance writer and editor for over 25 years with her work appearing in various publications including the Chocolate for a Woman's Soul series, Saying Goodbye, From the Heart, Points North, ByLine, Athens Magazine and Georgia Magazine. Find Amy on Twitter: @amunnell