No matter what writing project I work on—an article for magazine, a blog post for a university website, or even researching to write a book—some sources just prefer to answer interview questions via email. While interviews in person or via the phone are usually preferable, you can still glean some great information from an interviewee’s email.
Use these tips to get the information you need from sources when interviewing via email:
1. Keep it short and simple. The cardinal rule of journalistic writing is important when interviewing via email. Keep the questions you email direct and concise so your source can easily understand what is being asked and doesn’t get confused.
2. Add simple prompts. To make sure you get some specifics, you can add a few prompts in parentheses after the questions to direct the source to provide the relevant details you need. So a question may look like this:
Tell me about your background (such as education history, past jobs, etc.)
Tell me about your childhood (your parents’ occupations, siblings, lifestyle)
3. Ask the same question in different ways. Sometimes the way you ask a question can make a huge impact on an interviewee’s response. A source may write a one-sentence (or one-word) response to one question, and write three paragraphs in response to another. If there’s key information you need from a source and you’re concerned he may be hesitant to share it, altering the way you frame a question when you ask it could yield better results.
4. Limit the number of questions. Focus your questions on the key information you need. Do research before you talk to the person (search for the source on Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) so you know the basics of his background. That way you can simply confirm the factual info you find quickly, and focus more of your questions on the meat of the interview topic. Also, make sure you don’t have such a long list of questions that it intimidates the source.
5. Always end with an open-ended question. Some of the best information I’ve gotten from email interviews comes when I ask this question: Is there anything else about X topic or your experience that you’d like to share? This is a great catchall question, so if you didn’t ask something specifically, but the person has more she wants to share, she has an opportunity to share it.
6. Follow up. Once you receive the interviewee’s responses, reply via email to thank her and let her know if you have any additional follow-up questions, you’ll be in touch. This is important because sometime a source may provide a short or incomplete response to an important question. You can send an email to follow up and ask for more specific details. For example, if he mentions an event he participated in, you could follow up and ask him what his role was in the event, where the event was held, the event’s official title, and when the event took place.
7. Give the interviewee a deadline. This may be the most important thing you can do. Everyone is busy, and your source is, too. If you give a source a deadline to reply, it gets your email on her schedule so she can plan her time accordingly. And if you don’t hear back from the source by the deadline, it gives you a good opportunity to follow up without sounding too pushy.
Remember, sometimes email interviews can be a really great thing—like when you’re working on deadline and the source has no appointment times in his schedule, but can write responses while waiting at the airport. Other times, it can create challenges—like when working on a profile of a person that requires a lot of background detail and personal stories to showcase the person or topic.
Use your best judgment on which story types or interviewees would provide good information via email versus stories or interviewees that may be best to speak directly to via phone or in person.
About Dana’s Creative Services
Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. She frequently writes and edits copy on higher education and genealogy/family history topics. She is the author of the Unofficial Guide to FamilySearch.org. Twitter: @DanasCreative
I love to travel, and was excited when I had the opportunity to write an article on summer genealogy road trips for Family Tree Magazine’s July/August 2014 issue.
For the article, I interviewed staff at top destinations for genealogists around the country, including the Family History Library (FHL), the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) Library, Allen County Public Library (ACPL) Genealogy Center, and Ellis Island.
Here are a few things I learned from these professionals about making and planning for a genealogy road trip:
1. Every trip may be different. Especially at genealogy libraries, every trip you make there could be different. Libraries are constantly acquiring new materials and family histories, so even if you didn’t have much luck the last time you visited, something new and relevant to your family history research could have arrived the next year. So, it pays to check back with the library every once in a while.
2. Do your homework before you go. To take the best advantage of resources accessible on-site only, do some research before you go. Search the library’s online catalog so you know what books or microfilm you want to (and can) access. Browse or search any available online databases. Some repositories may store records in off-site storage facilities, so if there’s something specific you want to see, find out how you can request to access to those materials when you’re there (or before you go).
3. Call ahead. Historic sites, libraries, and archives may change their hours of operation (or may be under renovation, which causes access issues to certain records) due to holidays or during their busy or slow seasons. Call ahead to confirm the hours posted on their website are still correct. And while you’re calling, ask if any large groups are scheduled to be at the center during the dates you’re planning to visit. If so, you may want to consider shifting your trip dates to avoid the crowds and maximize your time there.
For more details and specific tips on visiting the FHL, NEHGS Library, ACPL Genealogy Center, and Ellis Island (such as collections you can access, how to get there, and other genealogy and history sites to visit while you’re there), see my article in the Family Tree Magazine July/August 2014 issue.
Also, check out the Family Tree Magazine May 2014 podcast (starting at 7:30) to listen to an interview I gave about this article and genealogy road trip tips.
About Dana’s Creative Services
Dana’s Creative Services is a writing and editing services company that helps businesses communicate better with their target audiences. Dana McCullough, owner of Dana’s Creative Services, writes and edits copy for brochures, newsletters, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. Her clients include universities, nonprofit organizations, magazine publishers, and book publishers nationwide. Dana has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and frequently writes and edits copy on higher education, genealogy/family history, health, and business topics.
Did you know that hundreds of advertising, marketing, and other companies may be tracking your every online move? These can be beneficial when advertisers show you ads customized specifically to you, but it can be creepy, too.
While researching information for an online privacy web course and quick guide for Family Tree Magazine, I came across several resources that can help show you who’s tracking you, as well as tools to block organizations from tracking your online movements. I was surprised to find that 114 companies were tracking my online surfing, and began using one of the tools I learned about to block some of the trackers.
Check out my “Web Browser Plug-ins for Privacy” quick guide in Family Tree Magazine‘s January/February 2014 issue for information on several tools to help you retain some of your online surfing privacy.
Most digital photo printing services now offer the ability to have photos printed on stretched or rolled canvas. The photo canvases provide a neat and relatively inexpensive (depending on the size) way to give photos a professional, artwork-like quality to spruce up your walls. If you have an image (in a JPG format, for example) of your family tree, you could have it printed so the family historian can hang it on his or her wall, or you could have special family photos printed on the canvas.
Of the six services highlighted in the Family Tree Magazine article, only one—Shutterfly—offers a cool family tree layout (for up to eight photos). To learn more about the differences among canvas photo printing services, check out the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine (page 64).
Before I entered the world of higher education communications and marketing, I was an assistant editor at Family Tree Magazine. Working at this magazine started a new passion to research my own family history. I continue to research my family history today, and I continue to write (and sometimes edit) article for the magazine.
So far in 2013, Family Tree Magazine has published three articles I’ve written about technology tools for genealogists—a software review on Saving Memories Forever, a quick guide to tablet computers, and a quick guide on password managers.