Email Interviews

    July 27, 2005

Reporters and writers know the value of face-to-face interviews. Follow-up questions are easy in real time allowing writers to chase a new line of questioning with little effort or loss of spontaneity.

Watching an interviewee’s movements, nervous twitches or smiles provides reporters with physical indicators of the truth or lie in an answer. Being on the scene allows writers to create descriptions of the individual and background details, adding depth and richness to the final article.

Where does that leave interviewing via email? While it may not be the same as a face-to-face or even a phone interview, it can meet the needs of writers who write for a global marketplace on a low budget.

True, an email interview leaves the interviewer with less details: no description of places or discussion of scents, facial expressions, hesitations or eagerness during the interview, but email interviews have certain advantages.

Email makes it easy for writers to connect with subjects in another time zone. Instead of the expense of traveling to interview a chef, or the difficulty of executing a 2 a.m. phone call, writers can email questions during regular working hours. The same goes for the chef to be interviewed. She can respond when she has time, and often in greater detail.

Interviewing by email allows subjects that are shy or ineloquent to shine during an interview. With time to contemplate what they want to say, and the opportunity to say it through email without pressure, encourages more reserved people to submit to an interview.

In addition, shy writers can add assignments to their work schedule knowing they will be comfortable doing email interviews.

Having trouble finding witnesses to an event, participants in a diet, or a broad spectrum of opinions for a particular article? Post on message boards or send emails to an address list asking questions. Email interviews are great for gathering a variety of quotes on short notice. Calling 50 people on the phone looking for quotes doesn’t compare with the ease of sending out a mass email.

Email is great for contacting public relations departments, setting up phone or in-person interviews with the person needed for an article, or gathering background information and publicity photos of dishes, chefs or products. They are also good for checking quotes and statistics; emailing subjects with a list of facts that need to be confirmed gives the writer a record of the confirmation.

Some of the benefits also create difficulties. While someone for whom English is a second language may appreciate being able to take the time to write out exactly what they want to say, allowing some interview subjects time to offered a canned answer to a hard-hitting question can lower the impact of an interview.

Follow-up questions are difficult to do with email too, but not impossible. Expect the need for several emails between writer and interview subject.

As a final caution: if writers want to conduct email interviews, they should still act and write professionally. Who wants to be interviewed by a writer that uses internet shorthand (“Thanks hun, wOOt. U r the best!”)?

Email interviews are here to stay. Their convenience allows writers to reach around the globe for interviewees without leaving home. As technology develops and our dependency on it deepens, do take time regularly to reflect that one of the reasons writers become writers is to see the world, experience it, and share their findings with others. Use email for interviews when appropriate or necessary, but when the opportunity to travel afar or into town for an interview, get up and go for it.

Pamela White is the publisher of Food Writing an online newsletter
for writers. She teaches the original online course on food writing.
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