Works for Me Wednesday: Phone Interviews for New Writers

Writing sample: Lamy Vista
Writing sample: Lamy Vista,
originally uploaded by churl.

Can you really capture everything a person says using the old pen and paper? You can try. Some people use shorthand, others recorders and then some people scribble VERY fast and then have trouble distinguishing their own words. That would be me. Recently, I have been writing life stories for an online site called Story of My Life which requires quickly getting inside a person's head over the phone with limited time.

Knowing I needed some advice on this issue, I accepted an invitation to a local writers' group, started by a woman known for her history columns in our town's paper, the Phoenix. I had to bring one of my young daughters with me that night but my host was very gracious and understanding and let her watch the TV upstairs while we talked about the craft of writing.

After listening to the explanation of our common focus, rights issues one person was facing and a little about each of us, I got up the nerve to ask these seasoned professionals how they conduct a successful interview. I learned a couple of interesting points, as follows:

1. TIME: You only need 15-30 minutes of a person's time if you know what you need to ask. Don't avoid interviews because you believe the person will be inconvenienced. People like to talk about their passions.

2. TOOLS: Some tools you can use for retaining their information correctly are shorthand, a digital recorder by a speaker phone, SKYPE (an online service requiring headset, special account and microphone) or just writing key points quickly. Since this meeting, I learned of a cool site called where you sign up for free and have each person call into a server that will record and store one call at a time. You can download the file, save it for later and use the account again and again. Apparently it is great for book club discussions too.

3. LISTEN: Really listen and ask questions based on the person's response. Sometimes where you think an interview is going might take off in a whole new exciting way if you give it some lead rope. Reign it in, however, when the bunny trail takes you off the path completely. Recently, I had an interview scheduled directly after a busy lunch meeting and I found focusing very difficult. It is important to buffer your interview time so that you can be in the right frame of mind to hear, digest, and ask the right follow-up questions.

Since that meeting, I have actually been using about half an hour to interview people when they have lots of online material, like a blog, to reference for further quotes. When they don't, I've gone as long as an hour on the phone simply because they are often telling me their whole life in a nutshell and I don't want to miss some important point or fascinating twist in their journey that might be a story in and of itself.

One thing I could do better is to make sure that if I want to write in a way that brings a person's story to life, I need to ask more questions with the five senses in mind, like "What were you wearing when you and your husband met?" "Was your hair blonde, brunette or red when you were younger?" "Was there a smell in the air?" Pictures help bring the reader into the story too. I tell people to pull out pictures of what they want to share since it might jog more memories for them. I include some of the pictures in the story I am writing.

My main focus with these interviews is to introduce the person to the world in third person and then they have the option to write more chapters in the first person. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting some incredible people who may have pretty simple lives except one theme or event that changed their thinking or how they see the world and what they have done to help the world around them with their renewed vision. Other people have made a lifestyle of risk and fascinating experiences. The most important part to remember is that everyone has a story to share.

Start writing yours today (and save the pictures to back it up)!

For more Works For Me Wednesdays, go check out Shannon at Rocks in My Dryer. Shannon shares some great ideas for cheap Halloween costumes.



  1. Thank you so much for this great post. As a fellow freelance writer, I really appreciate tips like these. I’m so glad you entered this post into WFMW. I would love to see a whole lot more like this.

  2. What an interesting post. I don’t do interviews with anyone, but in a way, we all do when we speak to someone new and are trying to find out about them. Listening is a KEY point. It always is.

    Come by my place today to see how you can Cruise through the Holidays, in my WFMW.
    Have a Great Day!

  3. Lots of wonderful advice! Thanks!

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