Music Journalism 101 i. Emailer interviews

In the previous instalment of this course, we went through the process of conducting interviews by telephone: how to prepare yourself, interview technique, dealing with Mr Business, and keeping your focus on your goal and on the conversation all at once. In comparison to telephone interviews, email-based ones (which we call emailers) are easier in some ways; but they can also be far more maddening.

Do emailer interview questions need to be different?

Yes they do. Sorry to disappoint you. Once you work out your style, you will be able to short-cut the process of writing questions, however. All you have do to, once you’ve mastered the ability to write good telephone interview questions, is tailor them for an emailer format.

While getting a good interview over the phone comes down to interview technique and – although I hate to say it – the quality of your voice (such as in how you project yourself, how relaxed you sound, and how prepared you are), you could strip the requirements for what makes a “good interview” by email down to two things, and two things only. These are:

  1. good questions
  2. having a person at the other end who is relaxed, has time to reply, and is reasonably good at expressing him- or herself in writing.

How to write good emailer interview questions

You already know how to write interview questions; but let’s revisit 101 G anyway, because the information and advice there is as applicable here as anywhere:

How to pull your notes into interview questions

Like everything, there is a simple method to writing interview questions. The key is getting the method right, and engaging in it religiously.

  1. Sketch out everything that you want to know about or talk about
  2. Write out all those points as single questions. Don’t double-up unless you have to – meaning, the second part asks for an expansion on the first part: it should never be a second question
  3. Make sure all your questions are individual questions
  4. Make sure all your questions are open – that is, they don’t require just “yes” or “no” responses
  5. Make sure they flow nicely – that is, think of all the possible interactions between yourself and the interviewee arising from each question. Reorder your questions until the interview flows smoothly
  6. Read the questions aloud to see if they flow nicely when spoken (need I mention that this is vital if you’re doing the interview by phone?)
  7. Critically analyse how many questions you have, and cull where necessary
  8. Re-order until you’re happy.

Keep your series of questions focused. Once you have got your questions together, as per the above list, go through it once more and keep yourself to ten questions or less. My best interviews, for instance, have been done on between five and eight questions, regardless of format. However, I do believe that keeping to a basic ten questions looks like only a few, keeps your interview focused on what is important, and enables you to engage in a write-up that isn’t overly long or arduous.

Ask yourself whether the questions could be answered without clarification. In a telephone interview situation, your interviewee has the luxury of being able to ask you what you mean if he or she doesn’t quite get it. This can prove essential for people from non-English speaking countries (and in metal, that’s a LOT of bands). If you are in doubt about anything, rewrite until you’re happy.

Something that has quickly become my own rule of thumb is adding contextual information for your question, when it goes out in an emailer, unless it’s bleedingly obvious what you mean and what you’re asking about. Don’t be afraid to tell the person at the other end that you read on some website about [this], and your question is [that]. If anything it proves how far you’ll go to be as original as possible, and it gives your bland little email some character and personality.

If you’re writing an emailer for a person whose first language is not English, keep your sentences short as hell. Don’t ramble on for two or three lines. Keep it short and sweet. Not only will this enable greater comprehension if the person’s English is poor, but if he or she has to resort to language translators, then the software will cope far more admirably if you don’t have a ton of phrases running into each other, separated only by commas.

Finally, double-check, triple-check, and check again until you’re happy. Remove any questions that could be answered too easily or stupidly (unless that’s what you’re after); avoid yes-no questions; and make sure that your language is pitched just right.

The difference between speech and writing

Most musicians are used to giving telephone interviews; it’s just the way it’s done, unless you happen to get lucky and get in on the ground, face-to-face. Sure, that’s obvious, you might think. What might not be obvious is that most people are quite comfortable talking to somebody else. And yet, a lot of people freeze when they have to write anything.

Why this is the case is anybody’s guess, but as a writer, editor and publisher myself, my firm belief is that it comes down to a person’s childhood. At school, we’re all told what’s wrong with what and how we write, and are rarely congratulated for it. Only suck-ups get the congratulations. We hear in the media all the time about how poor our literacy is, whether we’re children or adults. It has given nearly everybody a complex.

So with this in mind, you have to remember that if your interviewee is not particularly comfortable in writing, you should be prepared for a returned interview that might not meet your expectations.

Other factors to consider about emailers

There are a few other factors about emailers that you’ll want to consider.

  • If you get the opportunity to start right at the beginning with your music journalism, go for phoners first. This will help you test-run your questions and technique in person. You can tell an awful lot about how prepared you really are by the demeanour of the person on the other end of the line. It’s more nerve-wracking (my first ever interview, phoner, was with Rob Halford for instance), but it’s better for your development in the long-run.
  • Think about the format of your email, and never assume everybody runs a Mac or that everybody runs Windows. If you’re sending an attachment, make sure it’s a Rich Text File (*.rtf) because RTFs are multi-platform and run without any trouble. Usually.
  • It is tempting for some people to write little notes in an email, sucking up to a band, gushing about them or to them, or otherwise getting into fanboy or groupie territory. For the love of god DON’T do this. It is good to include a note at the beginning thanking the interviewee for their time, and noting that you know how much longer emailers take than phone interviews. That’s it. Gush is just disgusting (sorry to be so blunt).
  • You don’t have the luxury of following the conversation, so your questions need to be as full and insightful (and open-ended) as possible, and they need to flow one into another easily and logically
  • You might not get the interview back for a long time, especially if your questions are convoluted, despite repeat tries
  • The person at the other end could be tired, busy, not giving a shit, or even pissed off that he or she has to do it in writing, and this might affect what he or she writes, or their attitude in general
  • You might well get monosyllabic responses, to even the most open-ended questions, and not be able to use any of it (yes, that’s happened to me)
  • Your interviewee, despite all your best efforts, may totally misunderstand what you mean, and answer a question you haven’t asked (when this happens, it’s not usually something you wanted or needed to know)

    Next time

    You can look forward to some information, how-tos and advice on actually pulling your interview together. The next instalment will be far less journalism and all about the finesse of writing a good piece. Stay tuned!

    In the meantime, feel free to drop comments below, as always.

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