Don't forget the 'Why?'

A good interview can, and often does, make the difference between a strong story and one that will be sent back by an editor for major revisions or a “thank you, but we are not interested at this time” note.
The success of an interview often lies in the hands of the interviewer. There are, of course, times when nothing can be done to soothe a hostile subject with nothing but bad expectations of the end result.
There are, however, some things that can help make the person being interviewed feel more comfortable with the idea of being quoted for all time and eternity.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK Nothing irritates an interviewee more than having to explain everything. It makes people nervous the story will turn out wrong and often leads to short, unusable answers.
Plan ahead and spend time researching the topic of the story and, if possible, the people that will be interviewed for the piece. It only takes a minute to run a Google search. Arm yourself with as much information as possible before the interview.
People sense if a writer has made an attempt to inform themselves on the subject and it often leads to a more comfortable and more thorough interview, which in turn, can lead to a better story.
Have a list of possible questions and use them if the interview is dragging or gets off topic, but don’t be afraid to follow a new line of questioning if something interesting is mentioned.
BE PATIENT AND A GOOD LISTENER Nothing is worse during an interview than listening to useless ramblings from a source that will never make it into the story. Hear out the ramblings if you have the time, because they often lead to little gems that others working on the same story may not have been patient enough to hear. Let the folks you are interviewing take the full 15 minutes of their fame, but also be prepared to get the discussion back on task.
Listen carefully during the interview. There will be times when an obvious quote for the story emerges from your notes, but don’t stop there. Build a background to reinforce the quote.
Don’t pretend to be an expert and talk about your own experiences, but don’t hesitate to let the interviewee know that you are familiar enough with the subject matter that you can tell when the truth might be stretched a bit.
REMEMBER THE FIVE Ws Most writers seem to have no problem coming up with the Who, Where, When and What, but it is often the Why that will distance a story from competitors.
Without the Why, a story looks, feels and reads like a police report; all the pertinent information is there, but no one knows why the crook stole the apple pie. Was it hunger? Revenge? A mistake?
Once you have the basic details “just the facts ma’am” – dig deeper with the source and see what gems lie behind the Why.
Editors and readers will thank you for your efforts. ◊
Currently serving on the OWAA Board of Directors, Brett Prettyman has been an OWAA member since 1992. He is an outdoor and recreation writer for The Salt Lake Tribune. Prettyman is also the author of “Fishing Utah” second edition, spring 2008, Globe Pequot. Contact him at

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