Interviews & Oral Histories: No. 2, Research

Researching For Interviews 

The Art and Science of Writing
Today’s post is a recipe to help you prepare for any general or oral history interview you may conduct
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  While the ingredients may prove dry for some of my readers, my intent is to simplify the process for those of you seeking to broaden your skills as a researcher, interviewer and writer.  For, like a piece of fine art, the strong interview will provide a complex layering of elements that leads to a deeper understanding of the interviewee’s life, their place within world events, and the experiences that have made them who they are. 

Relying on their charm and a heavy dose of luck, some interviewers claim that establishing a good rapport with one’s subject is all that is required for a strong interview.  But although creating a personal connection with your subject is definitely required, I urge you to consider that doing a bit of research will strengthen your credibility with the interviewee and boost your skills as a professional interviewer worthy of respect.

Although the following example falls under the category of art, it demonstrates how the lack of professional training can interfere with one’s work.  Many years ago, I met a gifted painter who employed the tiniest makeup brushes to create delicate lace, fine hairs on African wildlife, and complex patterns on silken fabrics.  Noticing flaws in the placement of shadows, proportion of objects, and the musculature of human bodies, I gently suggested she take classes in the foundations of art

When she responded that an art teacher had previously crushed her spirit, I suggested she study privately with an artist she could carefully select for compatibility.  Over the years she has achieved a measure of success, but the flaws I first noticed continue throughout the body of her work.  I can only imagine what the knowledge of an authoritative artist could have added to the depth of her art.

Where should you begin your research as an interviewer?  Like the ideal scientist, you will want to thoroughly research your interview subject, confirming basic facts you may have assumed were correct.  To establish a reliable foundation for the facts to be revealed in the interview (as well as to offer a concise expression of the interviewee’s viewpoint), you will need to conduct research that goes beyond the details of their résumé.  This work should be completed before formulating the questions you will ask in the interview. 

As you move through the process of gathering information, consider the following questions.  What is the purpose of the interview project?  What are the demographics of your target audience who will be accessing your work?  Also, what direction is suggested by the format and themes of the media outlet with which you are working

Regardless of the proposed thrust of an interview, information that the public may seek about the subject should be addressed.  In addition, if you wish to separate your interview from others the subject may have granted, I believe it is good to have at least one surprising fact revealed. 

Now comes what some will consider the boring work.  There’s no way around it, unless you want to rely on your great charm.  To organize the facts you have discovered effectively, I suggest you consider using several tools.

  1. Create a double-spaced copy of the interviewee’s résumé or curriculum vitae [CV].  Highlight each piece of information you need to verify.  Place a check mark beside each one you confirm.
  1. Working from either a list provided by the subject (or revealed in your research), examine the interviewee’s articles, books, previous interviews, and other expressions of their thoughts that may exist.
  1. As you proceed with your research, write out potential topics for your forthcoming dialogue.
  1. Create a timeline of the subject’s life.  Although you may be focused on their career and public persona, list highlights in both their professional and personal living as a guideline to help you respond to unexpected turns your dialogue may take.  Depending on what has made the person newsworthy, you may wish to look at a graph of historical events that intersect with their life.  

How will such timelines be useful?  If, for example, the interviewee was involved in the labor movement of the post-World War II era, the strikes of labor unions on the West Coast and in Hawai`i greatly impacted the general public as well as union members.  Consider also the arts.  If your subject is a composer of music or lyrics, you may find that their noteworthy pieces were created at times of considerable importance in history.  Sometimes their work will actually be named for such an occurrence or an entire era.  This was true of a symphony named for, and embodying the discordant notes of, the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Depending on the flow of your interview, reference to an intersection of general history and your subject’s life may yield surprising insights about their career or personal living.  This can help you communicate with your subject, as well as with your readers or listeners.

  1. Prepare an interviewee survey.  Sequence your questions from the information they have provided to you.  You can simplify the process for your subject by filling in information you have been able to confirm through your research.  This could include:  Dates and descriptions of their degrees, certifications, accreditations, and other qualifications; institutions of affiliation; professional positions they have held; published works, community volunteerism and other involvement; names, ages, careers of spouse, partners, or children.  Remember that if you put in data you have not confirmed, you may be inviting errors—should their memory be flawed, or they actually wish to perpetuate dissemination of erroneous information.

To further your acquaintanceship—and to trigger your subject’s memories—you may want to offer blank space for them to fill in items such as:  Their nicknames; mentors and public figures who have impacted their life; programs and schools of thought that have shaped their perspective; adjunct and social organizations with which they may be associated; and, hobbies and interests.  Whether or not you wish to pursue topics such as political, philosophical or religious associations may depend on both what you have learned about your interviewee and the orientation of the media outlet with which you are working.

Despite the details I am suggesting you consider, keep the resulting survey as short and simple as possible.  I also recommend using a five-point Likert Scale for any questions you wish answered with a measurement of the subject’s agreement.  Hopefully, your subject will be able to provide you with a completed survey prior to the interview.  This will allow you to fold their responses into questions you are preparing for conducting the interview. 

If you do not receive a response to your survey, have a pleasant conversation with your interviewee about your preparation, so that they will want to participate fully in the process.  If necessary, try to reschedule the survey by a day or two to ensure you are fully prepared.  If you must conduct the interview without seeing your subject’s survey responses, you may want to take a few moments to try to write notes in the margins of your interview questions about issues you now feel you need to explore.

By the time you are nearing completion of your research, you should know whether or not the facts you have uncovered demonstrate your subject’s ability and desire to answer your questions fully and honestly.  In addition, you will have determined whether the facts revealed are in accord with the original goals of your project.  It is also important to determine whether the direction of the interview indeed fits within the thrust of the media outlet with which you may be working

It is possible that you will find there are fundamental conflicts within the facts revealed in your research, your initial perspective on the interviewee, and the boundaries of the planned interview.  If you are able to control publication of the information resulting from your interview, you are fortunate.  But if you are restricted by the media outlet’s direction, I sincerely hope you will discuss your concerns with their management team prior to conducting an interview that does not honor you or your interviewee.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors, 
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com

 

The Fear of Losing Files

A Never Ending Dilemma

Authoring strategies include more than conceptualizing, writing, publishing, and promoting your creative ideas.  Being an effective writer demands honed organizational skills as well!

Are you old enough to remember life before computers?  I actually know some people who have only discovered the wonderful world of electronics in the last five years.  In each case, the revelation of Life Electronic was triggered by a pressing need to communicate with a person or organization that could not be accessed regularly by telephone or postal service.

Once you have joined the electronic age, there are many challenges to be faced. Some parallel those prior to the microcomputer.  The issue I’m addressing today is preventing the loss of files.  Electronic files that is.  If you have never encountered this dilemma, please let me know how you’ve been so fortunate. Each time I think I’ve solved the problem, a couple of years pass in relative peace.  Then I commit some new error and again face the potential loss of valuable information.

Let’s begin our discussion with a basic question:  To avoid losing information, how many files should I keep?  Unfortunately, there’s no single answer that will meet the needs of every person in every situation.  Some authors I know keep every electronic file they have ever created, as well as their hardcopy edits.  I cringe to think of the complex file naming they must employ.  Unfortunately, such people have been known to compare my past editorial remarks regarding the same text.  What they fail to realize is that just as their writing has evolved, so too have my knowledge and sense of style—as well as my awareness of developing trends in the world of publishing.

Another trigger for keeping multiple versions of copy is the fear of losing pleasing verbiage that has proven impractical for a project at hand.  When I find a need to remove favored words and phrases from a major writing project, I simply create files of unused verbiage named to pinpoint the topic and source. One example is a narrative passage from Prospect For Murder that I converted to dialogue.  The single archived file is named,  WongP_orig_speech_re_family.

Knowing I might forget a particular name, I convert both electronic and printed files named for past clients and projects to topical files.  This does NOT mean I keep everything I’ve ever created.  My concern is to prevent unnecessary research and writing in the future.  If I’ve addressed a topic three times, I may save only the last piece, if the layout and text are the most interesting.  This way I do not have to remember the client’s name, yet I can quickly access text by topic, such as the insurance industry, movies of the 1930s, or ocean liners plying the waters between Hawai`i and Asia.  To decrease file size in my electronic archives, I remove logos and other artwork…after verifying the imagaes are stored elsewhere.

As to forms of electronic backup, the technology is constantly changing and you will have to decide when to shift from one form to the next.  I must confess I’ve still got floppy disks [diskettes] and zip disks.  These disks are large enough to label with client or project names, yet small enough to store alphabetically in clear plastic containers for rapid access…another positive aspect to this old technology is the longevity of the disks, despite innumerable formats.  I also have CDs, DVDs [more fragile], and Universal Serial Bus [USB] flash, pen and thumb drives, which I use for large folders and art files.  Unfortunately, these drives are so small that they preclude easy labeling, but you can use colored markers to color code your choices of media to remember the general category of their contents…

In addition to being concerned about where you save your files, be cautious about how you save them.  While compiling Under Sonoran Skies, Prose and Poetry from the High Desert, my co-authors and I encountered problems with disappearing edits during manuscript preparation until we learned the difference between the file commands, Save and Save As.  When you specify “Save as,” you are creating a wholly new file, which usually precludes the possibility of multiple edits leading to a corrupted file.  So,unless I am writing a single-use document, I now use Save As for every file I re-edit—art, data or text. [To maintain high resolution, technical experts suggest editing art images in Tagged Image File Format [TIFF] prior to saving them in whatever format you require for publication.]

Regardless of the number of electronic files you keep, you will need a file naming system that is consistent and memorable.  Even though today’s technology allows long file names, minimizing the characters used simplifies future reference. Since Imaginings WordPower is a lot of characters, I simply use an “I” for the start of operational file names.  Thereafter, I may abbreviate the minimal words used in a title, underscoring between words.  I conclude the titling of files by dating them, with two-digits for the year, the month, and the day a file was created.

The resulting name for a business card might be “I_bus_card_150708.” To differentiate between files with similar names, I may insert “merged,” to note merged layers, “New” for a recent edit, or the name of the company that last printed it. Sometimes I also insert a Header in a document to mimic the source file’s name when I am setting up topical folders of samples of my work. That way I don’t have to wonder about the electronic file name for hard copies I’ve printed for my personal records.  The only thing to remember is that you may need to temporarily delete the header if you are printing the document for public viewing or distribution….

I hope these measures—and your own modifications—will help you avoid corrupting or losing files.  But what happens if you prematurely delete a file from a recycle bin?  The problem is easily resolved if you have not emptied the bin.  In such a situation, you can simply double click the bin, mark the file you wish to un-delete, and choose Restore to return it to its former location on the hard drive.

Unfortunately, restoring files that have been deleted from a recycle bin is not as simple or perfect a process. Again, you can choose to leave the bin overflowing with files; but if you need to restore one, you may find that recognizing the correct file is difficult if you do not have a recognizable file naming system.  In the midst of short projects, I try to avoid emptying the recycle bin.  But once I have completed a section or the entire project, I complete my housekeeping of files, emptying the recycle bin when I am confident that I have properly backed up every relevant file.

Recently I triggered the loss of a file for a potential sci-fi novel. I was lacking material for my writers’ salon, and had decided to share part of this story, which is a departure from recent work in the genre of mystery and suspense. I recall isolating the passage I wanted to use, and reformatting it to double line spacing to facilitate editing by my fellow authors. But when I returned to input the suggestions I had received, I could not find the file.

Knowing files can be mistakenly dragged into an incorrect folder, I systematically checked every subfolder within my creative writing folder. After that, I used the Search programs and files feature offered by MS Windows when you click on the Start button [usually in the lower left hand corner of your monitor screen]. When my inputting of several combinations of words failed to uncover the missing file, I downloaded a free program for recovery of files deleted from the Recycle Bin.

In retrospect, I probably should have paid for a more sophisticated program with additional features, because what I recovered was a mass of undated and unnamed files of multiple edits that had to be individually examined. This was a time consuming and frustrating activity. However, I not only retrieved the file I was seeking, but in reviewing other files, I gained ideas for blog posts and other writing projects. In short, the experience was the proverbial blessing in disguise…but this is not an activity I wish to repeat.

Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant

To learn more about Prospect for Murder and other writing projects, please visit my author’s website at Https://www.JeanneBurrows-Johnson.com.  And for more ideas to strengthen your Wordpower© and branding, please visit my website:  Https://www.ImaginingsWordpower.com