Research for Writers: How to Interview an Expert

December 7, 2020

Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.

Sooner or later, every writer is going to have to interview an expert. Students might be required to do so for an assignment; for creative writers, interviews are sources of stories, anecdotes, quotes, and details that can’t be gleaned from any other type of source. This is particularly true for STEM topics, where the convention is for experts to strip every bit of colour and personality out of their written work… meaning, there’s a TON of brilliant stuff they didn’t put into their papers, but will tell you about if you ask.

As writers, we know that doing an interview is a good idea… but for most of us, interviews are terrifying. What introvert wants to cold call a total stranger and ask for a favour? But we have to get over this fear, so that we can access the best possible material for our manuscripts.

I’m in a unique position when it comes to interviews. As a writer, I’ve interviewed experts. But as a scientist, I’ve also been interviewed by writers – both students AND professionals. I’m going to share my best tips from both sides of the fence.

First things first?

Tips for interviewing expertsDo Your Homework

Always remember that the person you’ll be interviewing is doing you a favour. They are giving you the gift of their hard-won expertise, not to mention valuable time out of their very busy schedules. Respect that time.

Back in my days as a wildlife geneticist, I received an email from a student at another university asking me to send him a list of books and papers that he could read to learn more about wolves. I was so irritated that this person had contacted me without ever setting foot in a library, I didn’t bother to respond.

Don’t expect an expert to teach you basic concepts or provide information you could access yourself with a few hours’ research. Instead, contact an expert when:

  • the sources you’ve been reading are contradictory, and you need clarification
  • you’re looking for a very specific piece of information that you haven’t been able to dig up on your own
  • you want the kind of first-hand, personal, emotional detail that only someone who’s lived your topic can provide

Once you’ve done the leg work…

Understand That Most Experts Are Happy to Share Their Stories

In fact, most people are so astonished that someone cares enough about what they do to write about it, they will bend over backward to help you. This is particularly true of scientists, who are used to feeling like they are the only person on Earth who cares about the thing they’ve devoted their entire life to studying!

True story: when I was working on Fuzzy Forensics, I wanted to interview a wildlife officer and a veterinarian who’d been involved in investigating a case I was covering. I googled for contact information and discovered that both men had passed away in the years since the investigation. But to write the book the way it needed to be written, I needed information about them, even if I couldn’t speak directly to them about their experiences.

In a cold sweat, I cold called their widows. To my relief and delight, both women were absolutely thrilled that someone remembered their loved ones and wanted to honour their work in print. They told me stories, sent me photos, and, after the book was published, bought copies for all their friends and family. I was so overwhelmed by that outpouring of support, I ended up dedicating the book to my experts’ memories.

Yes, there will be an occasional expert who doesn’t respond to your emails, but there is almost always someone else working in the same field that you can try. In fact, some experts will tell you they are too busy but refer you to colleagues who can help. 

Asking For An Interview

Protocol here varies a little bit depending on the type of expert, the contact info you’ve found, and what you need.

If my first contact with someone is via email, I start by:

  • Introducing myself as a writer and very briefly describing what I’m working on: “I’m a Canadian children’s writer working on a book about the boreal forest.”
  • Explaining why I’m contacting this person, instead of someone else: “I’ve read your fascinating papers…”

Then, I do one of two things:

  • Ask the one question I’ve got. “I’m having trouble finding out how long it takes for leaf litter to decompose, can you help?”
  • Ask if the expert is open to an interview.

When asking for an interview, I make sure to mention:

  • That I’m open to email, phone, zoom, in person…. generally according to the expert’s preferences and schedule
  • The approximate number of questions or, in the case of a phone call or live interview, roughly how much time I will need.

Again, this is all about demonstrating that I’ve done my homework first and respecting the expert’s time. Speaking of which…

If your first contact with your expert will be by phone, which is much more intrusive, do not expect the expert to drop everything and answer questions at that moment. Explain that you are calling to request an interview at a time that’s convenient for them. You’re much more likely to get a yes that way.

Composing Your Questions

Yes/no questions are fine, but you’re not going to get the good stuff with them. Open-ended questions such as “What’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you while hiking in the Rockies?” encourage the expert to tell you a story… and that’s where the colour and detail are hiding.

When composing your questions, keep the audience for your writing in mind. The very first children’s article I ever sold is called “Bringing Up Baby Foxes” and is based on research I did as a scientist. The article was published in Highlights for Children, a magazine that loves quotes from experts, so I interviewed one of my coworkers for it. As I was writing my questions, I realized that they were geared towards producing information I already knew, just in someone else’s voice. And then I realized that this was my chance, as a lab-based scientist, to ask a field researcher something I’d always wondered about – what’s it actually like to touch a real, live, wild arctic fox! I asked, and I’m so glad that I did. Not only did I satisfy my own curiosity, but I captured details about fox behaviour and the texture of fox fur that the average 8-year-old would – and did – absolutely love.

During the Interview

If you’re doing a live or phone interview, take notes, and flesh them out as soon as the interview is over, while everything is still fresh in your memory. And do not record someone without asking their permission first.

Follow your script, but don’t be afraid to deviate if the expert mentions something fascinating you never thought to ask.

Likewise, at the end of the interview, ask something like “Is there anything that I forgot to ask that’s important for people to know?” There is usually some pet peeve or misunderstanding about their field that the expert would love to correct. If not, there might be something else that’s super cool that the expert is just dying to share. It’s not uncommon for this question to be the most fruitful of the interview.

Stick to your budget. If you said you’d need 30 minutes, don’t take 60. Respect the expert’s time.

Finish by thanking the expert and asking whether you can follow up with them, should something come up while you’re writing. Also, offer to send them a copy of whatever you’re working on when it’s published.

And finally…

Remember that you have two goals:

  • to get information for whatever you’re writing
  • to make a contact that you can return to for help in the future.

That second one will only happen if you are professional, respectful, and express your gratitude for the gifts the expert has given you, but if it does, it will enrich your writing life for years to come.

Hopefully, you’re feeling a little less frightened and a little more prepared to go forth and interview! In the meantime, shoot me your questions in the comments, and feel free to share your own experiences interviewing experts.

2 Comments on ‘Research for Writers: How to Interview an Expert’

  1. Great points, Lindsey! It’s great to get answers to your questions, but those open-ended questions get answers you never knew you needed. My last question in every interview is, “Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think I should know?”

    When I worked in Communications for the Ontario Ministry of Resources, I often had to contact Conservation Officers to confirm the details of arrests and offences. It was always a treat. Those folks tell the best stories! Just give ’em an open-ended question and off they’d go.

    When researching my novel Betting Game, I had a great interview with an O.P.P. officer who was a North American expert in illegal gambling. That interview completely transformed my antagonist from an old seedy-looking guy to a sharply dressed, polite young man you’d want your daughter to bring home for dinner. Thanks to that officer, my bad guy became really frightening, because he seemed like my main character’s best friend — until he wasn’t!

    Reply | 
    1. Conservation officers DO have the best stories! Some of the things they’ve experienced are really unbelievable.

      Now I need to get a copy of Betting Game…

      Reply | 

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