5 Keys to Writing a Q&A Piece People Actually Want to ReadBy Susan Johnston Taylor September 20th, 2016
Q&As—articles formatted as an interview transcription with a simple introduction, like these—can be a freelancer’s best friend. They require an interview with a single source rather than multiple sources, they follow a very specific format, and they appeal to readers because they place a greater focus on the subject’s voice.
I’ve used the format to my advantage plenty in my career. In one case when I felt the pay rate wasn’t high enough to justify a multi-source feature, I convinced the editor that a Q&A with a single authoritative business expert would satisfy her need for content (not to mention my need to hit a certain hourly rate). It was a win-win for both of us.
That doesn’t mean Q&As are easy, though. You have much less control over the content, and you can’t bolster a boring subject with your own interjections like you could in a normal reported piece. It’s why many freelancers specialize in the format: They’ve mastered the sometimes unorthodox skills and tricks that allow you to consistently churn out interesting interviews.
Read on for expert tips from freelancers who’ve published Q&As in major media outlets on how they identify great sources, conduct readable interviews, and stand out from other interview specialists.
Find a compelling subject
Monosyllabic responses do not make for page-turning prose. To create a compelling Q&A that editors will actually be interested in, you first need to find someone with an interesting point of view.
“It has to be someone that has something to say,” said Joel Keller, a New Jersey-based entertainment writer who’s published Q&As on Playboy, TV Insider, and Parade. “I end up getting offered a lot of people, and not everyone’s interesting enough to talk to.”
Keller often finds that the creative forces behind a TV show, for example, can be more interesting than actors or actresses on the show.
Also consider timing. Lisa Liebman, a New York-based freelancer who’s penned Q&As for Vulture and Vanity Fair, said she gets a lot of pitches but she looks for people in the entertainment business who have a project coming up that she deems worthy of press (not just some D-list celebrity or a reality TV personality).
Her in-depth knowledge of the entertainment industry helps her identify subjects whose work justifies coverage.
“I screen a lot of TV shows ahead of time so I can see what, in my determination, is going to be interesting,” she said. She also avoids getting swayed by an eager publicist or coverage in other outlets. “I know to stay in my lane, to do the things that have resonance for me.”
Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski, an award-winning freelance writer who’s done Q&As for Parade, NextAvenue, and others, finds that people who’ve done interviews before tend to be good subjects for her. “They either speak concisely or they are okay that you’re going to have to edit them when they go a bit off-topic,” she said.
Don’t just ask about the topic at hand
Subjects who do a lot of media interviews get asked the same questions over and over again. As a result, they often have a plethora of canned responses. With a profile or a feature article, you could bring in other details to enliven the story and detract from boring quotes, but a Q&A requires interesting responses.
Liebman elicits interesting material by researching her subject’s lives outside of their normal work, which helps “make them more dimensional than just the project they’re working on,” she said.
For instance, you could ask about a charity they’re passionate about, or their reaction to current events. “The trick is to be curious,” Liebman said. “It gives you a license to ask whatever you want.”
That said, save any potentially contentious questions for the end. In one case, Liebman discovered an ex-husband an actress “had somehow lost along the way,” she said. In case that question blew up the interview, Liebman asked about the missing husband at the very end of the interview—after she’d already gotten the other material she needed.
Make it a conversation, not an interrogation
Elina Shatkin, a Los Angeles-based journalist and radio producer who freelances part-time, has interviewed chefs and celebrities for Q&As in publications including LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and others. She tries to do in-person interviews whenever possible because “it’s a much better way to establish rapport.” But she’ll conduct interviews by phone as necessary.
“I usually prep questions beforehand and have a printed list in front of me, but I may only refer to that list occasionally, ask the questions out of order, or not ask some of them at all, depending on how the conversation goes,” Shatkin said.
That’s key. If the interview is a robotic, check-the-boxes kind of affair, the reader will tune out. So while it’s important to prepare questions beforehand, it’s just as important to let the conversation flow naturally.
In rare cases (like when Shatkin interviewed actor Nick Offerman for The Believer), she’ll bring along a third party to an in-person interview. “Sometimes, the dynamic of a trio helps it feel like a conversation rather than an interrogation,” she said.
Whether you’re interviewing by phone or in person, for a Q&A or any other format, listen carefully to responses so you can ask follow-up questions and get a feel for your subject’s mood. Often, unexpected, pointed follow-up questions lead to the most interesting responses.
“If you make it like a conversation, you’ll get much more out of the source, whether it’s a celebrity or not,” Wojciechowski said. “When folks are relaxed, they open up, and tell you more. This always makes for better interviews for both stories as well as Q&As.”
Triple-check your recording device or software
Like all the freelancers I interviewed for this piece, I record Q&As to ensure accuracy. The problem is—as anyone experienced in Q&As knows—recording technology can be frustratingly finicky.
High-powered executives or entertainers are often short on time, so if your audio recorder malfunctions, isn’t positioned correctly, or runs out of memory, you may not get a do-over. That’s why Keller stressed the importance of always testing your recording device or software before the interview.
“Even though I’ve done dozens of these things, I still have lost interviews to static,” he said. “If it really looks like it’s not working, I interrupt the interview and say, ‘Hey, I’ll call you back.'”
It’s also important to double-check transcripts if you use a transcription service like Rev. Liebman transcribes the recordings herself because that helps her review the material, but if you’re like me or the other freelancers I interviewed who use transcription services, you shouldn’t trust that these services will get everything right. If something seems fishy, it’s better to check before you submit the article then after your source sends an angry email to your editor.
Edit for space and clarity
Even a 15-minute interview can result in a transcript that’s several thousand words long, much wordier than the Q&As most magazines or websites publish. The writer’s job is to find the most interesting parts of the interview and edit out the fluff, while still accurately capturing what the subject said.
Shatkin said she looks for “the most interesting, funniest, juiciest stuff” and nixes any repetition. “I reorder the questions to try to give the interview some sort of narrative or structure, grouping similar questions together,” she added.
Most Q&As don’t come out of the box perfectly formatted, and most people’s speaking habits are full of verbal ticks, colloquialisms, starts and stops, and fractured sentences. Unless you’re trying to capture a famous person’s speaking habits, it’s often better to edit the majority of these out for superior clarity. Just remember to keep any substantive changes in brackets, and to tell your editor that the piece has been edited for clarity.
And don’t forget to edit yourself. Keller likes to tighten up the question portion of the interview so his subjects get more real estate in the piece. “No one needs to hear me pontificate,” he said. After all, the piece is about your subject, not you. So keep the focus on the fascinating answers you’re prompting them to give.