Monday, February 27, 2017

After the interview ~ turning notes into story

by Sue Heavenrich

interviewing bumble bees at RMBL
I’ve been committing journalism for a couple decades and no matter what I am writing about – whether it’s how to plant strawberries or the effects of repealing the Affordable Care Act – I always end up interviewing someone for nitty-gritty details. The trick is turning 5 pages of notes and quotes into an article that both educates and interests the reader.

“But there’s so much material,” you say. “I want to share it all.”

Short answer: you can’t. No one wants to read transcribed notes. Your job, as a writer, is to sift through what you’ve learned and find the important nuggets – and then develop a story that provides context for the reader. For me, this process involves a yellow highlighter and a cup of tea. After reviewing my notes, I jot a rough outline focusing on the most compelling points. Meanwhile I’m asking myself: what’s the most surprising/interesting thing this person has to share?

I think of profiles as a story: I am telling you, the reader, about this cool writer I met. She might have some useful insights on research, or he might have a funny story about what inspired his book. So I use the same process that I would use telling any story: who is this person, what’s the cool thing, and why does it matter – and for GROGGERs, how can we use this in our own craft?

That means that I will describe how they work, paraphrase some of what they have to say, and use the occasional quote. Though I am not a big fan of the Q & A format, I sometimes use it in a longer piece to focus on specific questions. 

GROG:  So how do you use quotes? 

Chris Mihaly (fellow Grogger): If I'm using quotation marks, I use the interviewee's exact words, altered with [brackets] if necessary. Otherwise, paraphrasing works well. 

Jilanne Hoffmann: I paraphrase quite a bit. It really depends on the purpose of the interview and the allowed word count. That tends to drive the form. I don't like word-for-word transcriptions. It doesn't leave much room for shaping the article/interview.

Should writers let the interviewee review the article? Most journalists don’t, though when I am writing something technical I will often email a section to the expert to make sure that the quotes and context are correct. I’m not the only one; Nalini Krishnankutty was happy to have an expert go over what she’d written, and thankful that person caught an error. “But no one has ever asked me to change anything else in either my writing style or the focus of my story,” she says, “and if they did, I am not sure I would be willing to do it.”

Among the many wonderful resources about interviewing, here are two I find useful (please add your favorites in the comments section):

Anatomy of Nonfiction, by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas

“How to Write a Profile Feature Article”  by the New York Times.


  1. Very useful info for all who conduct interviews. I have learned a lot. TY, Sue

  2. I've acquired new knowledge. Thank you for the helpful tips, Sue.

  3. Thanks for sharing your advice on interviews!

  4. Nice post, Sue! I'd also like to give Peter Jacobi a shout out. He's taught journalism at Indiana University for years and has been a regular faculty member at Highlights, as well. As his Highlights' bio notes: "His two guidebooks, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It and Writing with Style: The News Story and the Feature, are standard reference sources for journalists." Cheers!

    1. Yes! He's very wise. I had the fortune to meet him at Highlights workshop.

    2. Sue, thank you for this info. I especially liked your who is this person, what is the cool thing, and why does it matter? You know whereof you speak!

  5. The reminder to "sift though and find the important nuggets" is so importnat. As I work on a biography about an inventor, I want to write all of the details. However, that would not make for a great story. Excellent post, Sue.

    ~Suzy Leopold