Monday, November 24, 2008

Interview Experts for Non-Fiction Work

When writing non-fiction, research is not the only way to gain information on your topic. Interview an expert to illuminate what is important. Maureen J. Hinds has written an excellent article on this topic. I’m going to put this one in my notebook. Read on.

Writing for Children – Interviewing experts for Your Non-fiction Work.

Know Your Subject
This may seem contradictory to the purpose of conducting the interview—you’re consulting an expert because you’re not one yourself, right? Yes—however, you need to have a good grasp of your topic so that you know what you’re talking about during the interview. The purpose of contacting an expert is to clarify and gain additional information, not to be taught your subject. Experts appreciate the effort you put into understanding the topic and being able to speak as knowledgeably as possible about it.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Preparation is key to a good interview, no matter what method you choose. Make a list of your questions ahead of time, for your own purposes and to send to your expert. Many people appreciate knowing what they will be talking about, as it allows them to generate thoughtful responses rather than “off the cuff” comments. Send your list of questions to your interview subject, and follow them during the interview (while allowing the interview to veer as appropriate).

Decide How You Will Conduct the Interview
This depends in part on your subject, but your options often include in person, by phone, or through email. All methods are acceptable, and while a shy person may lean toward email, remember that the immediacy of an in-person or phone conversation can often add that “human” element that might be just what your piece needs. Sometimes you won’t have a choice, if your editor or subject prefers a particular method. It’s a good idea to practice various methods as you progress through your writing career. (If you record a conversation, be sure your subject knows and check any applicable state or governmental laws.)

Be Respectful of your Subject’s Time
Many professionals are happy to lend their expertise to your cause, as long as you don’t abuse the privilege. Be respectful of the person’s time, letting them know ahead how long you expect the interview to last. Be on time, and stick to your time estimate. If you run over, you can request a second interview, or ask if you can follow-up via email or phone.

Quote Accurately
No matter what method you choose, be careful that you quote your experts accurately. Obviously, this can be easier via email, but it is certainly possible for other types of interviews as well. If you have time, consider sending the quotes to your expert for review before submitting the manuscript. Not only will this help ensure accuracy, but it also gives your expert an extra opportunity to clarify a difficult topic or expand on an idea or comment. If your topic is technical, you can also request permission to rephrase the quote in terms that your younger readers will understand. Many experts are open to this, and will approve your changes—just be sure to let them know! And of course, when you write your piece, be sure to give credit to your source.

Where do you find experts? There are many options, but here are some ideas to get you started:
• Check your local yellow pages

* Investigate professional and nonprofit organizations

* Ask for references from research contacts, colleagues, those you talk to throughout the process, and even in casual conversations when someone says, “I know someone who…”

* Names you run across through Internet and other research

* Through online directories such as

Maurene J. Hinds is a children's author with several published books and two forthcoming. She is an experienced teacher who has taught creative and technical writing and literature at the high school and college levels, and teaches online writing workshops and offers manuscript critiques through her website. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Teenagers from Vermont College. She is completing a young adult novel, "Bruised," under the name Maurene Janiece. Visit her website at
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