It’s not always best practice to conduct an email interview as a freelance writer. But sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s what you have to do. Over the years, I’ve gleaned some great email questions that ensure you get fantastic quotes from case studies. Here is my step-by-step guide to email interviews for journalists.
How freelance writers can get the most out of email interviews
Email interviews for journalists can be super useful.
But, like anything, there are pros and cons to using this method of interviewing case studies or experts.
The benefits of email interviews in journalism:
– You have your case study’s words in writing
– It’s so time efficient, especially if you’re a full time freelancer (no back and forwards scheduling a phone call)
– No transcribing
– No stress about whether your dictaphone or recording device is working
– It can really help with your time management and productivity
– Plenty of time to craft your questions and ask exactly what you want
– Great for interviewing experts like academics or researchers where you need precise information
The drawbacks of freelance writers using email interviews:
– You lose some of the magic and spontaneity (okay, a lot)
– There’s no opportunity to pursue any other line of questioning
– You don’t get to create any personal connection (and often you lose opportunities for case study spoking)
– High potential for canned, lifeless responses
The best time to use email interviews for case studies or experts
I would never interview someone over email if I was writing a profile of them or where I needed lively, colourful quotes.
Though that said, I once wrote a feature on Instagram influencers and one influencer was only available for an email interview.
So I had to go with it.
Her responses were okay, but they weren’t great.
Her personality didn’t shine through and her answers seemed to be very mindful of protecting her ‘brand’.
Maybe that would be the same if I had spoken to her, but for the same article I spoke to two other influencers over the phone and they were nowhere near as filtered.
I find email interviews most useful when I need to gather clear, crisp answers from people that don’t necessarily have to be vibrant or jumping off the page.
This means I tend to save email interviews for academics or experts.
This is where the facts are more important than florid comments.
Interviews where you need to explore recent research or where you’re asking an expert for ‘how to’ advice are great to conduct via email.
Using a two-step approach to email interviews
Sometimes I use a two-step approach where I’ll ask questions via email first and then follow up with a phone call.
This way you can get all the facts out of the way in the email and then get straight to the good stuff in the phone call.
I’ll also often give people the option to answer questions via email or by phone.
Some people much prefer having the time to deliberate and answer via email, and some are happy just to chat freely over the phone.
Write to Done editor Mary Jaksch has an usual process of interviewing bloggers.
She emails one question and then waits for the reply before asking the next.
To me would be a slow form of torture, so you have to work out what suits you best.
When email interviews don’t work
Because you only have your words on a page, it’s crucial to know how to structure a good email interview.
The best that can happen is that someone writes and replies as they talk.
This means you get natural, free flowing responses to your questions.
The worst is you get regurgitated jargon that is inaccessible, meaningless and ultimately unusable.
So what kinds of questions can you ask to make sure you get fantastic quotes each and every time?
The examples below are questions that I would typically ask researchers, academics or experts in a particular field.
It probably goes without saying, but these are not the questions I asked my Instagram influencer.
I come back to them time and again to help me craft my questions via email.
An example of email interview questions to ask academics or researchers
Even though you have told the case study who you’re writing the article for and what it’s about, it’s always worth recapping.
So start with a brief description of the article you’re writing.
I usually say something like:
“As I mentioned, I’m writing this article about X for X. I’m speaking with X experts and X case studies with lived experience about X.”
Set the scene (background questions)
– Can you tell me about the project/research and how you became involved in it?
(This may also go something like: Can you tell me about yourself and your experience in this field – although if you ask this expect a bio, rather than anything you can quote)
– What prompted you to get involved in this research/project?
(What prompted you to pursue X?)
And so? (here you want to get to why this is important/relevant/new)
– What did you find?
– How might I explain your findings in a way that 12 year old could understand?
(This is so helpful for cutting through scientific jargon)
– Why are your findings important for everyday people?
– What might the broader implications of your findings be?
– What kind of response have you got?
(Another good one to ask here is: What do others in your field think/say about this? Or: Is there anyone else who thinks your results show something different?)
– Was there a turning point where you realised you had made an important finding?
– What do you personally find exciting, important or surprising about the results?
– Are there any myths or misconceptions in this area that you’d like to clear up?
– Is there anything else you’d like to add about X?
– What else are you working on at the moment?
(This is a great question to ask because it might lead to other story opportunities)
Be warned that if you put prompts in brackets, people are likely just to answer those.
For example you might ask: “Tell me about yourself (e.g. your age, height and hobbies).”
While you’ve suggested those three things as items the case study might like to tell you about, you’re likely to only get back answers to those questions.
Give them a deadline – tell them specifically when you need their answers back by.
Please learn from my experience.
Don’t tell your case study or expert when your submission date is and hope they’ll do the maths and email you their responses a few days prior.
They’ll think you are a super human who can receive their responses on the day of submission and turn them into a sparkling article by 5pm.
Give yourself plenty of time.
Because sometimes you might just find you need to do a phone interview after all.
Do you conduct interviews over email? Do you have any other go-to questions that you commonly use?