E-mail can be an effective and convenient way to conduct an interview, and is often appreciated by busy experts who don’t have time for a face-to-face or telephone interview. It enables you to compose questions carefully rather than “on the fly,” and gives your interviewee time to respond carefully as well. E-mail also offers a good way to follow up on a traditional interview, when seeking clarification or additional information.
E-mail interviews are especially useful when the interviewee’s information will constitute a very small part of your article, or, alternatively, when the article will be based almost verbatim on the interviewee’s words, as in a Q&A interview or similar piece. They may also be appropriate when:
- The interviewee specifies a preference for being interviewed in this fashion.
- The interviewee is too busy for a traditional interview.
- Conflicting schedules and/or time zones make telephone interviewing difficult.
- You know exactly what questions you want to ask. (This often requires some background knowledge of the subject.)
- The subject is relatively impersonal. (An e-mail interview wouldn’t be appropriate for discussing a tragic or deeply personal issue.)
- The interview can be conducted with a limited number of questions.
E-mail interviews are less effective when you’re trying to develop a profile or catch a personal glimpse of the interviewee — a profile that would include not only the individual’s words but also your observations of the person’s appearance, actions, skills, emotions, tone of voice, etc. They are less effective if you don’t know enough about a subject to develop useful questions, or when you’re more likely to get information from the natural flow of questions and answers than from a predefined script. In an e-mail interview, you can’t change direction if a more promising tangent emerges from the conversation; you can’t nudge the interviewee back on track if the conversation strays or ask follow-on questions if your first questions don’t elicit enough information; and you can’t ask for immediate explanations or clarification.
The following strategies can help you develop and refine an e-mail interview:
- Determine your goals before writing your questions. Decide exactly what you need to know; then develop questions that will best elicit that information.
- Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.” For example, instead of asking, “Do you enjoy writing children’s books?” ask, “What do you enjoy most about writing children’s books?” or “What are some of the things you enjoy about writing children’s books?”
- If necessary, explain why you are asking a particular question, so the interviewee has a better idea of the response you’re looking for.
- Let the interviewee know what audience or market you’re writing for, so that the interviewee will know how detailed or technical the information should be.
- Keep your questions as clear, uncomplicated, and short as possible.
- Keep your list of questions as short as possible. Ten is good; twenty is likely to tax an interviewee’s patience.
- List your questions numerically, and leave space between each question for the interviewee to insert the answer.
- Include a final “open” question — e.g., “Is there anything else you’d like to say on this subject that hasn’t been covered above?” that will enable the interviewee to add information or ideas that weren’t covered by your script.
- Let the interviewee know how soon you need the answers. (If you need to follow up on a late interview, be polite; remember that the interviewee is doing you a favor, and is under no obligation to comply with your request or meet your deadline.)
- Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, or to follow up on questions or answers that beg for additional information. And always thank your interviewee!
E-mail interviews don’t work for everyone, or in every circumstance. They may not be appropriate, for example, if your interviewee is uncomfortable with written questions (they may look too much like a test) or doesn’t enjoy expressing ideas in writing. Under the right conditions, however, e-mail can add an extra level of convenience to an interview — and give you a written record of the conversation.
Another way to gather information via e-mail is to conduct a survey. Once again, the Internet offers an unparalleled opportunity: You can send a list of questions to hundreds of potential respondents, at no cost.
At the same time, caution is in order. Some respondents may regard a survey as a form of spam. Your e-mail should state the nature and purpose of the survey as quickly, succinctly, and courteously as possible. Assure respondents of privacy, and guarantee that you won’t cite anyone by name or organization without permission. If you’re soliciting comments as well as statistics, ask respondents to indicate whether or not they may be quoted, and how they should be cited.
Like interview questions, survey questions should be short, clear, well-organized, and limited in number. Unlike interview questions, however, survey questions should encourage “yes/no” answers, or answers to a multiple-choice selection of options. Respondents are also more likely to answer a short questionnaire than a long one.
An easy format is to follow each question with the answer options (e.g., “Yes” or “No”) on a separate line or lines. Place a set of parentheses in front of each option, with space for a response:
1) Do you accept e-mail queries?
( ) Yes
( ) No2) How do you prefer to receive manuscripts?
( ) Hardcopy (printed)
( ) On diskette
( ) By e-mail, in the body of the e-mail message
( ) As an e-mail attachment
This enables the respondent to simply insert an “x” in the appropriate space and mail the form back as a reply. If you are offering a multiple-choice question that could have more than one answer, indicate whether you want the respondent to “check only one” or “check all that apply.”
To ensure your respondents’ privacy, place all your survey addresses in the “BCC” (blind copy) field of your header. Leave the “TO” field blank, or enter a generic title in that field (such as “editor” or “director”). That title will then show up as the “addressee” on each survey form, but addressees won’t be able to see the addresses of your other respondents.. (You’ll receive a notice that this “blank” e-mail was undeliverable, but the blind copies will go through.) If you have a large number of addressees, send the survey in several batches rather than all at once.
When you mail your survey, several may bounce back immediately as undeliverable. Keep track of these bounces so that you know exactly how many surveys went out. This will enable you to calculate the correct percentage of responses. For example, if you send out 100 surveys, get ten back as undeliverable, and receive fifty responses, you have a 55 percent response rate.
The bulk of your responses will typically arrive in a flood within the first two or three days of your mailing. After that, the flow will taper to a trickle. At some point, you’ll have to decide when it’s time to cut off the survey and tally the results, even if you’re still getting an occasional response. It’s also helpful to set up a separate mailbox to store your responses until you’re ready to tally them.
Once you’ve completed the survey, make a list of the respondents and send them a thank-you note for participating. If respondents are interested in the results of your survey, let them know when and where the article will appear.
Perhaps more than any other electronic invention, e-mail has changed the way writers and editors do business. Like any technology, however, e-mail can easily be abused. Its simplicity often fosters an inappropriate attitude of informality, an inattention to detail. Because e-mail costs virtually nothing, it can also be overused. Editors have no more wish to be bombarded with e-mail messages than with phone calls. Authors, experts, and others who post an e-mail address on a Web site still value their privacy, and are under no obligation to reply to every message they receive.
Simple courtesy and professionalism, however, will go far toward keeping lines of communication open between writers, editors, and experts, for whom the negatives are generally far outweighed by the positives!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.