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Crafting the Q & A

BY CHRISTINE PETERSON

Most of the time, people don’t speak unscripted as well as you write. You probably don’t speak as well as you write. That’s why most stories are heavy on prose and light on quotes. It allows the writer to skip over tangents, wanderings and broken sentences, while preserving the essence of the interview.

It also allows a writer to include multiple people and perspectives without confusing the reader.

But sometimes people want to hear exactly what a subject has to say in his or her own words. That’s where the question-and-answer format comes in.

The benefits vary. First, Q&As, as they’re often called, are typically easier than writing a narrative with multiple sources. Second, done well, they’re easy to read. And third, they can be more intimate, presenting a portrait of a person in his or her own words.

Before embarking on using the Q&A in your writing and reporting, here are a few questions (and answers) you should consider.
 
Q: How do I decide if I should tell a story using a Q&A format?
A: If time restraint is the best reason you can think of to write a Q&A, think about it some more. Question and answer stories shouldn’t be done because they can be easy. Their ease should be an ancillary benefit, not a primary reason. The best question and answers are often with people who are well known, or have had an impact on something important — people readers want to hear from directly. They should also, ideally, be with people who are relatively articulate. Before you decide to start one, ask yourself if this is a person you’d like to hear speak.
 
Q: How do you prepare for the interview?
A: Question-and-answer stories can be deceptive when it comes to time. Sure, you may not have to struggle over the perfect sentence, but you do have to do homework ahead of time. Make sure you’ve researched your subject before the interview. If the subject is a writer, read some of his or her work so you can ask about a piece. If the subject is a scientist, ask about specific parts of his or her research.
 
Q: What kinds of questions should you ask?
A: Don’t ask yes-or-no questions. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to fall into the yes-or-no trap. Ask questions that will lead to stories. Instead of asking the bighorn sheep researcher if it’s scary to work on high-elevation exposed mountaintops, ask the scientist to describe what it is like to capture a sheep. Don’t stick to the basic “how did you get into this?” and “could you ever imagine you’d be this successful?” questions. Feel free to ask those — you never know what you might hear — but also ask more in-depth, specific questions. Stray from your script. You want these interviews to be conversational. As the person talks, feel free to respond with other questions you hadn’t planned. Keep the cadence like something you would see on an evening news show. You aren’t the center of the interview, but you are there, and should ask questions and respond as a reader might.
 
Q: How do I capture everything the subject says?
A: Record the interview. The most cumbersome part of a Q&A is certainly transcribing, but it’s also necessary. Unless you type or write as fast as a person talks, and can guarantee the accuracy of your skills for the length of an entire interview, you need to record it. This allows you to capture exactly what your subject says in the nuanced way he or she speaks. It also protects you should any of the interview be called into question later.
 
Q: How much of the interview should I include in the story?
A: Most of my Q&As start with basic questions to help the person feel more comfortable. I ask about job history or education. The information typically becomes part of an introduction I write, which slims a person’s biographical information from a list of schools, awards and positions into a couple of tight, clean sentences. From there, cut the least interesting questions and answers. You can also trim portions of their responses by using ellipses. You want to feature the most important and interesting portions of the interview, so don’t plan to simply dump the entire transcript on your reader. If you are growing bored with a long-winded response, chances are your reader will, too. ♦
 
— Christine Peterson is an award-winning writer and the outdoor editor for the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s statewide newspaper. While she’s not tracking bears, wolves or elk on assignment, she’s chasing trout and wrangling her yellow Labrador.
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