HUNTER COLLEGE READING/WRITING CENTER
THE DOCUMENTED ESSAY/RESEARCH PAPER
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:
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- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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?"
- 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
*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.
- 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
*As a courtesy to your source, send a brief thank-you letter
along with a copy of the document you write based on the
*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.
- 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
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.
- 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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