Guides to Research and Writing From Sources:
Using the Interview as a Source

Interviewing is an excellent way to gather information that would not otherwise be available in written form. It may be required that you conduct an interview with an expert in a particular field as the main reference for your essay or as a supplement to other books and short texts that you have gathered in your research. Interviewing is not only a resourceful way to add to your knowledge of a subject--be it grasshoppers or politics--it is also a way to learn about possible career choices and even to make valuable contacts for your future.

An interview is a meeting between two or more people, in which a prepared interviewer asks questions and records the answers (by tape or through notes) of a specialist. The specialist's responses can include such things as technical information, statistical data, research, personal information, anecdotes, photographic materials, philosophical/political/social reflections, definitions, *opinions, and advice.

*Keep in mind the difference between an expert's oral opinions, which are often given informally in an interview, and his/her carefully considered written opinions, which would appear in a professional journal or book.

The Interviewing Procedure

Like any other writing assignment, the interview is comprised of several stages:

  1. Deciding on the Purpose of the Interview

    You need a clear idea of the purpose for your interview before you can make a choice of whom to contact. Once you've decided on the purpose, write it down in one or two sentences. In addition, you should do your background reading and literature search first; then you'll have specific, concise questions to ask and you'll be able to fit the questions into a coherent whole.

  2. Determining the Appropriate Person to Interview

    Many times your subject or your objective in writing about the subject logically points to the proper person to interview. For example, if you are writing about Medieval manuscripts, you would most likely interview a professor or writer in that field or an authority from a museum; if your subject is the mating habits of iguanas, you may decide to go to the zoo in your area--if they house them--and find an authority in zoology who could help you.

    Some sources available to help you determine a suitable person to interview are the city directory in the library; professional societies; the yellow pages in the local telephone directory; or a local firm that is involved with all or some aspects of your subject.

  3. Requesting the Interview

    After determining the name of the person you want to interview, you must request the interview. You can do this by telephone, fax, or letter. (If you choose to write a letter, make sure you leave yourself enough time as correspondence by mail is slower than the other two alternatives.) Since your interviewee is doing you a favor, try to accommodate yourself to his or her schedule. A 30-60 minute time period is standard, but the decision rests with the person you are interviewing.

    Learn as much as possible about the person you will be interviewing as well as the company, institution, or agency in which she/he works. When you make contact with your interviewee, explain who you are, why you are contacting him/her, including the reason you chose this person for the interview, the subject of the interview, that you would like to arrange an interview at her convenience, and that you will allow her to review your draft.

  4. Preparing for the Interview

    Prepare a list of specific questions to ask your interviewee. The more specific you are the better information you will receive. For example, in an interview with a marine biologist, such a broad question as "What are you doing about ocean pollution" will not elicit specific and useful information because it is too general. Such broad questions also show your interviewee that you did not do a sufficient amount of research; however, specific questions immediately verify that you have spent considerable time gathering and reviewing relevant information about the subject or the person. For example, "You wrote in an article several years ago that acid rain is destroying the algae in the ocean. Has anything been done recently to relieve this problem?"

  5. Conducting the Interview

    You should consider tape recording the interview, but ask permission in advance because some interviewees will not permit it. If you do use a tape recorder, make sure it is battery operated so that you are not dependent on an electrical outlet. Regardless of whether you are taping, you must plan to take notes, which means you need a sufficient supply of paper and pens.

    *Review research and questions before going to the interview.

    *Arrive at your destination a few minutes early.

    *Make your purpose for the interview clear at the outset.

    *Once you've established your purpose, begin with an appropriate question and listen carefully to the answer, writing down key words that will remind you of the points being made. Don't feel bound by the order of your questions; however, do use the questions to keep the interview on track. Some answers may prompt additional questions: ask them. If your interviewee strays from the subject, try to be ready with a specific and direct question to guide her/him back to your overall purpose.

    *Don't be afraid to admit that you don't understand something, and ask for examples and definitions of terms. Sometimes you'll find it useful to read back specific responses to confirm that you have clearly understood what was said.

    *Be objective. Don't offer your opinions on the subject. You are there to get information not to debate it. You will impress the interviewee and receive better information by the type of questions you ask and how carefully you listen and adapt to the demands of the interview.

    *Try to keep up with your interviewee and don't ask her/him to slow down. Therefore, at times, you will be writing more brief, memory-jogging notes that will help you recall the conversation later. If you are using a tape recorder, do not let it lure you into a relaxation of discipline so that you neglect to ask crucial questions.

  6. After the Interview

    After you finish conducting the interview, use your memory-jogging notes to help you mentally review the interview and record your detailed notes. Try not to postpone this step! If you have taped the interview you will not need to transcribe (put in written form) the entire tape. The tape will be most helpful as a way of filling in your notes. You will, however, have to listen to the entire tape in order to decide on what information is most useful for your essay.

    *When you write up the interview, be sure that you quote accurately.
    *As a courtesy to your source, send a brief thank-you letter along with a copy of the document you write based on the interview.
    *Keep a record of the date and place of the interview as well as the name and title of your source. Include this information in the Works Cited section of your report.

  7. Citing Sources: MLA

    When you paraphrase or use a direct quotation from your interview source, you document it in your text the same way you would cite a single author of a book (surname) although you do not use page numbers. If you have included the specialist's name in the essay to introduce the quotation or paraphrased information, you need not put the name in parentheses, at the end of the passage. Also, if the entire essay is dedicated to the one interview and there are no other sources, you need not make citation throughout the essay. Simply record the interview on the Works Cited page.

    The following format is required for the Works Cited page of your essay.

    List the interview alphabetically (if you have other sources) by the specialist's surname, state that it is a personal interview, and give the date of the interview.

    Naylor, Gloria. Personal interview. 27 July, 1996.

  8. Citing Sources: APA

    Personal communications, including interviews, E-mail, discussion groups, telephone conversations, letters, memos, etc. are not listed in the reference list at the end of your paper (what is called the Works Cited in MLA format). However, in your text you should include the initial(s) and surname of your communicator, with the date remembered as exactly as possible.

    C.G. Sherwood (personal communication, September 29, 1986) has specific suggestions about the market in Belgium.
    It is important to keep in mind the cultural differences between countries, especially in this case the difference between the United States and Belgium (C.G. Sherwood, personal communication, September 29, 1986.

    *See MLA or APA handouts for further information

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