Putting your reader second… (behind your interviewee) (Mistake #8)

“The most important thing was to write a piece that my interviewee would be completely happy with,” was what a writer told a colleague of mine a while ago, regarding a sculptor she was profiling for an arts journal.

I’m sure the final piece was excellent, but I couldn’t help feeling this attitude was a mistake.

As a writer, your first duty is to your reader – not to your subject.

When you interview someone, your approach should be to ask questions to which you think your reader will want answers – not necessarily questions which the interviewee may want to be asked and which might allow them to portray themselves in a perfect light.

They may be old and frail; they may be sweet and gentle; they may be offering you tea and Fondant Fancies. I’m afraid it doesn’t matter – not even if they’re the lemony ones. What you can’t do is to shy from questions that need to be asked.

If, for instance, your interviewee’s work has been criticised, then you should address this – for example, by asking how the criticism made them feel or how they dealt with it. Avoiding the subject because it may further upset them is weak.

Ask several ‘nice’ questions, by all means – then ask the odd tougher question too.

But asking questions isn’t enough. You need to incorporate answers into your piece. If you catch yourself editing or omitting material because your subject “might be upset by it” or you begin imagining your interviewee’s head resting heavily on your shoulder, glaring disapprovingly as you write, then you’re in trouble.

I’m not suggesting a stitch-up job. I’m suggesting you have to be as impartial, fair and objective as you can be.

This doesn’t mean you can’t plug the interviewee’s book or exhibition or whatever project it is they may be promoting – but it does have to be relevant to the reader. Agreeing when asked if you could squeeze in a quick mention of your subject’s new sideline in organic jam-making is likely to be a big no-no.

You don’t only owe it to your reader. You owe it to your editor – who is, remember, paying you to ask questions on behalf of the reader.

And you also owe it to yourself. Asking difficult questions and delivering to the reader will improve your interviewing and writing skills, earn you respect – and make your work more compelling to read.

Comments 5

  • Totally agree. And actually, the tough questions usually produce the best answers. Did an interview recently where I asked an arts fundraiser if she felt that her job was worthwhile given how much need there is for money for things like disaster relief etc. She wasn't offended, and her response was really interesting, thought provoking and emotive.

  • Oooh! I'm groaning as I read this! I've had first hand experience of the pitfalls of letting your interviewee see the finished article about them before it's submitted!

    It was such a painful and frustrating experience that I vowed never to do this again – but what do you say if the interviewee is adamant they want to see it before it's published – and where do you go if they insist on making changes to it? (I had one guy who tried to virtually rewrite it!) I'm still reeling from that – particularly when I sent them a copy of the article that had been in the local paper and they didn't even have the decency to acknowledge it!!

    Most of my interviews and subsequent articles have been a joy I hasten to add! But does one bite one's tongue if the interviewee becomes like a petulant child and demanding, or do you just press on regardless, or walk away and find something else to write about?!

    I think letting interviewees see the article before publication is a double edged sword – can winkle out any inaccuracies etc but can also cause untold headaches!

    Brilliant post by the way

    Julie xx

  • Rin – that was a brilliant question to put.

    Julie – it's a tricky one. I've had problems before too. While there's a time when you may want to let an interviewee see their quotes (for fact checking / accuracy, say, for a very complex subject), I would draw the line at letting them see a full article (besides, some publications actually oblige you not to show anyone). I think, if you suspect the interviewee may not know how this business works, the best thing to do would be to preempt problems by explaining upfront that you don't give copy approval. If they kick up a fuss it may be a sign that the subject could be more trouble than they're worth, and you may be wiser to go fish elsewhere if you can.

    But yes, very delicate and tricky… hope other folk come in with their thoughts. Thanks both for yours.


  • I recently spoke to a mother of a friend who is writing a biography of someone. She was hired to be a ghost writer, I believe. This woman was so frustrated because she simply was asked not add a very important fact in the book, which would definitely please readers.

    I did suggest she should write it anyway, but she said than when she approached the lady in question about this fact and that she wanted to add it in the book, the lady was very upset and, since then, their relationship is at a breaking point. I then asked: what is the point of writing a biography of someone and only put the things she wants to add? It is not genuine.

  • I guess it depends whether it's an authorised or unauthorised biography. This is where an agent or publisher may be able to help, I suspect, but it's a difficult situation.

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