You gnash your teeth as you sit on deadline and realize you don’t have the information you need for your writing task. It might be because you didn’t get the most out of your interviews.

When you do research to gather information for a story, a news release, a memo, a proposal, or any other kind of document, you often need to talk to people. But that conversation is not just casually asking a few questions; it’s an interview, and effective interviewing–the ability to elicit useful information–is a skill. There are a few important elements to it, and here is one that people often overlook: Doing the advance work.

First, be clear in your own mind about what you need to learn during this conversation so that you will be sure to ask the right questions. Too many people jump into an interview without having a good grasp of what they need to learn, and then they fumble their way through. Before you grab the phone and dial, or before you schedule an in-person interview, consider your questions, organize them by topic, and ask the important questions early in the conversation. You never know if your subject might have to end the session early because of another appointment.

Second, do research to be as informed about the topic as possible; otherwise, you look lazy and amateurish. Nothing chills the atmosphere more than someone who shows up for an interview unprepared. The executive, engineer, or other information source you are interviewing immediately sees this as a waste of time and will give you shorter answers because he or she is in a hurry to end the conversation. That means you will leave the interview with snippets of information but no substantive details.

Effective interviewing can yield great results if you invest important effort up front.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at

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