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Interview Guidelines


Before You Begin

We're available to assist you with all aspects of the interview process, from selection to contact, preparation, and publication, and we do this from our interview assignment document. You'll need a Google Drive account or a gmail account prior to requesting access to this shared document.

Contacting The Artist

We ask that you update our interview assignment document with the name of the musician you intend to interview. Once you are cleared to interview the musician, you'll want to acquire promotional materials (music, bio, etc.), an important part of the preparation process.

If you choose to select one of the available candidates from the interview assignment document, contact the person associated with the musician (either the publicist or the musician).

There are three ways to handle the interview:

In person. If you're lucky, you'll get to talk with the artist one-on-one. Interviews in person are always better, because the interviewee generally feels more relaxed and open in this setting. Get together over food or drinks in a casual setting.

By Skype or telephone. If geography or scheduling prohibits meeting in person, use Skype or the telephone instead.
Let the interviewee know in advance how long you would like to talk.

By email. You should only use email to conduct an interview as a last resort, typically only at the specific request of the artist. While email may be tempting because of the ease of transcription, steer clear unless you have no other choice. It's very hard to predict how forthcoming an interviewee will be--and the results can often be determined by such irrelevant parameters as how well they can type, or when they have computer access. Another problem with the email interview is that answers don't lead to new questions unless you're assured of multiple rounds of Q&A.

Recording Devices for In Person or Phone Interviews: If you are doing interviews in person or by phone you will require some kind of recording device to record the conversation. A variety of devices can be used, but you will need an input that will allow you to connect a microphone for in person interviews, or a phone hookup (widely available in audio/video stores) for recording telephone calls.

In many places it's illegal to record phone conversations without consent, so make sure you clear that up front. If you have any questions about the various technologies discussed here, contact the senior interview editor.

Questioning Tactics

First and foremost, do your research in advance. Artists are more prone to open up if they feel that you know them and their work. Listen to as many records as you can get your hands on. Read historical and discographical information from sources like the Penguin Guide or the All Music Guide, as well as any articles already published at AAJ. If you have access to a library search service such as Lexis/Nexus, do a search and get your hands on some original articles. Because you should try to present as much new information as possible in your interview, you need to know what's already been covered.

Introduce yourself to the artist up front. Tell them a bit about your interests and describe AAJ. This will give them a better idea about their audience during the subsequent conversation. Be relaxed and bring as much personality as possible to bear in the interview situation, but be yourself. This approach will encourage the artist to do the same.

Avoid yes or no questions. Instead, try to make your questions as open-ended as possible without sounding ignorant.

Encourage conversation. Try to encourage the interviewee to speak freely about whatever topic they desire. Often unanticipated subjects or issues will come up during an interview and end up being the best part of the interview.

Always be prepared for a withdrawn subject. Have a list of fallback questions ready in advance, so you won't be caught with your pants down. If you find someone is not talkative, try to change the subject until you find something that piques their interest.

Listen to the interviewee. Perhaps the most important part of a good interview is simply listening to your subject. The best question is often your followup question asking them to expand upon a comment they have made. You'll miss these opportunities if you're not paying careful attention. It's often best to allow the subject to determine the course of the interview, since that assures their continuing involvement and interest.

Editing Quotes

Take your time with the transcription process after an interview. Double check everything that you submit for accuracy. Misquoting a subject can be the kiss of death in journalism.

Trim the interview down before publication. Remove off-topic tangents, lengthy lists, and irrelevant personal interactions between the writer and the interviewee. Remember that people speak in ways that don't necessarily translate well into print--pauses, fragmented speech while they formulate ideas, run-on sentences, etc. It is perfectly acceptable to rework the interviewee's words into more concise and cogent shape, often just by employing the right punctuation, while striving to retain his/her personal voice. If the interviewee is highly critical of specific individuals and groups in a way that he'll likely regret in the future, try to be sensitive to this and omit the gory details. Whenever you delete anything from an interview, replace the text with an ellipsis (...).

Use brackets where appropriate. If the interviewee speaks about individuals using only first names, add their last name in brackets so the reader knows who's being discussed. For example: "John [Coltrane] sounded best on soprano." A couple possible exceptions: Miles or Ornette; or nicknames such as Bird or Satchmo.

Don't be afraid to use brackets as often as necessary to clarify statements or insert words left out by the interviewee.

Punctuation: If the interviewee describes a conversation, use double quote marks to enclose that material in Q&A format, or single quote marks if you're writing it up as a narrative. Choose your punctuation carefully. Don't be afraid to use exclamation marks or italics for particularly bold or emotional statements, but never use ALL CAPITALS or bold. If you choose to use exclamation marks or italics, limit their use for maximum impact.

Sentences transcribed with endless strings of commas tend to be difficult to read and reflect poorly on the communication skills of the subject, so break them up into bite-sized pieces wherever possible. Two or three incomplete sentences are always better than a very long string of phrases.

Choosing A Format

You have two choices for formatting when you write up an interview. Choose what works for you.

1. Q&A Format

This approach is obviously easier because you don't have to do as much writing. However, it's sometimes not as effective as a well-written feature story, because you don't always get stand-alone responses from an interviewee. It can also be difficult to frame responses within an accessible context. While preserving authenticity, the Q&A format tends to have low information density.

The Q&A format is most useful when you're talking with an articulate person who feels free about expressing experience and opinions. If the interviewee gives short answers, babbles endlessly about minutiae, or otherwise presents himself as a dull person, you should strongly consider picking the very best quotes and writing in narrative or artist profile format.

Please use the following formatting convention, specifically bolding the Q&A tags and placing a paragraph break before each one (see the HTML Formatting Guidelines for more information):

AAJ: What was your first experience with butterflies?

CM: I got one stuck in my horn in Chicago in 1950.

Try to organize the interview logically, especially if it transpired in a haphazard fashion. If the conversation had a built-in logical flow, you don't need to re-organize. Otherwise, don't be afraid to move things around to make it a smoother read. Just be sure not to change the meaning. When in doubt, the chronological approach is always solid.

Compose a brief paragraph or two as introduction when putting together a Q&A interview. Briefly summarize the life and accomplishments of the artist; bear in mind any specific interview responses which may require explanation. Try to approach the material in a way which is accessible to all readers, but still holds the interest of those readers who already know something about the subject.

2. Narrative Format

Organize quotes around a theme. You're building a structure with your words that will serve as a foundation to frame the artist's words in the best light. Try to incorporate as much of the interview text as possible without ruining the flow of the piece. If the interview transcript makes up less than 30% of the article text, then the piece should be submitted using the article category Artist Profile; otherwise submit it as an Interview.

You may find it useful to pick out the best quotes from your transcript and arrange them on the page before starting the writing process: this approach will allow the raw material to organize itself, and then you can just go about connecting the dots. When you get done with the first draft, read everything through carefully to make sure it flows evenly. Reading aloud can also be a useful approach during this process.

It's important that your lead sentence reflect something unique to the artist, as opposed to a general statement which will cause the reader to yawn and move on.

Strike a balance between factual information, descriptions of the music, and the lifestyle or opinions of the interviewee. Most people would like to hear about the music itself, but they also are curious about unique events in the artist's life, as well as the artist's opinions on interesting topics. Mix things up as much as possible without losing coherence. Try to come up with clever linking phrases that allow natural transitions between subjects, or play around surfing the interface between two topics.

Strike a balance between the past, present, and future of the subject. The past history of a person's life can give great insight into the music that they make right now, but most readers are particularly curious about what lies ahead. Try to present information about upcoming projects, records in preparation, planned tours, etc. The fresher the material, the better.

Close out the interview with something interesting. After the lead, your closer is the second most important part of the story. Usually by this point the reader feels somewhat comfortable with the life and opinions of the subject, so throw out a curve ball: something particularly quirky or distinctive which sets the subject apart. It's usually safe to close with a quote, but don't be afraid to embellish a bit, especially if the quote is a bit cryptic.

3. Introductory Paragraphs

Whether using the Narrative or Q&A style for your interview, write one or two brief introductory paragraphs to set context and summarize the life and accomplishments of the artist.

Try to approach the material in a way which is accessible to all readers, but still holds the interest of those already familiar, to some extent, with the subject.

Avoid cliched introductory phrases like "I caught up with," "AAJ contributor XX spoke with," or "I met with XX." This information adds little value and, with your name hotlinked to your Contributor Profile in the article's header, there's no need for further personal stamping.

How To Handle Names

Your first reference to the subject should include both first and last names. After that, you can use the subject's full name or last name only. Do not use his or her first name. Last names give you a more objective standing with the interviewee; first names tend to sound too chummy and isolate the reader. If other individuals come up on a first name basis, add their last names [in brackets].

How To Title Your Article

Create a short and punchy title that will pull the reader in. The format should always be Artist Name: Title. For example:

Delfeayo Marsalis: His Time