The Atlantic‘s James Fallows is the subject of our Tricks of the Trade interview this afternoon. He more than qualifies to answer these questions. He has written for the magazine since the late 1970s and once served as former President Jimmy Carter‘s chief speechwriter.
Favorite Interview Technique – It’s not so much a technique as a state of mind. The crucial imaginative leap for reporters is being comfortable with the reality of always dealing with people who know more than you do. Or you should strive always to be in that situation. This might sound like a “Duh!” point, but I think it is deceptively important. Suppose that you are a teacher. Or a doctor or an administrator or a politician. Or even a parent or a boss. Most of the time you’re in the situation of knowing more than the people who are coming to you, or being assumed to know more. You are the expert, they are the civilians. That is a comfortable situation, often too comfortable. There is a kind of ritual humiliation that goes with the opposite situation – of approaching the experts, from the position of the amateur. But that’s the only way you learn anything! So being comfortable with saying, “I don’t understand, do you mean?…” and “Sorry to ask a basic question, but…” is the state of mind I find most important for interviewing.
Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked – In a variety of weird settings, it turns out to be variants of, “How can this be?” For instance: When I was living in China, I found it very hard to put two parts of reality together. One was all the data I saw, and stories I read, about China’s ever-larger financial holdings in the United States. China was rich! The other was what I saw around me all day every day: namely, a country that was absolutely full of poor people. So I started going to economists and financiers and bankers and saying, “How can this be?” Over the years, the most reliable guide to what will make a “good story” – in my particular venue of The Atlantic – is something that lends itself to “how can this be?” treatment. There’s usually an explanation for why things are the way they are. That is, the answer is usually not, “I have no idea ‘How this can be,’ it’s purely random.” Finding that explanation is a lot of the satisfaction in journalism for me.
Best Self-Editing Approach – Many of the answers here are obvious, so I won’t be the thousandth person to say that you should cut out “fancy” writing, etc. Instead I’ll say something I bet others have not said: For writing where “style” matters – where you want to sound polished – think of reading what you’ve written aloud, to see how it sounds. There’s a reason that matters. If you pay attention to writing that is meant to be heard – dialogue, poetry, memorable speeches – you will notice certain familiar patterns of rhythm and sound. For instance, in such writing the stress in a sentence often comes at the … end. Even for writing that will never actually be read aloud, somehow it flows better through the eye into the brain if its rhythm follows those rules too. So: if what you’re writing is important, consider taking the time to read it to yourself out loud. If something sounds unnatural in its rhythm, that’s a sign that you need to change it in some way. (Sorry, Fallows…we do love this suggestion, but The Weekly Standard/Daily Caller’s Matt Labash is the king of this technique…)
What to do When an Interview is Tanking…
(Tanking Interview): Cut your losses. Recognize that the interviewee has other things to do, too, and almost never will take offense if you leave early. Another approach is to ask, “Is there anything else I should be asking you?” Or “What’s the point I should be asking about that I’ve missed?” That puts some responsibility and pressure on the subject to come up with something more.
Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People” – Sadly, the main thing to bear in mind about “important” interview subjects is that the more eminent they are, the less you are likely to learn from the interview. I’m not being as cynical as this might sound – i.e. prominent people are deceptive or dull. What I mean is that the more elevated and experienced someone is in political or corporate life, the more likely he or she is to already be exposed to whatever you’re going to ask, and to have a kind of canned robo-answer to give. That’s part of the mystery of covering a presidential campaign: almost anything a reporter asks a politician on any topic, that politician has already heard and answered many times before. So: interview these people only when you have to. Mainly that is when you need to get a “for the record” response to a story you have developed some other way. And keep your expectations in line.
Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview – Hmmm. I can’t think of the moment about anything that has truly dumbfounded me. Mainly the surprises are of the subtle but positive kind: people who decide, once you’ve started asking some “official” question, that in fact they’re going to open up and tell you how to understand a certain issue from their point of view. Actually, I have just thought of something, but maddeningly I can’t give much detail about it. For my current story in The Atlantic, I had a long off-the-record interview with a very, very prominent political figure. I had a hard time getting this person off the phone – and didn’t want to, because he (or she) was telling me so much fascinating stuff. Which I had to find a way to use without compromising the terms of the discussion.
Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten – I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful editors through the years – Charles Peters at the Washington Monthly, Bill Broyles and Greg Curtis at Texas Monthly, the sequence of Robert Manning, William Whitworth, Cullen Murphy, Michael Kelly, and James Bennet at The Atlantic, plus cameo appearances by Jonathan Weber at the Industry Standard and Jim Impoco at The New York Times’ technology section and Corby Kummer and Scott Stossel at The Atlantic – that I resist thinking of any one bit of advice. But I suppose I should nominate the earliest and most frequently repeated one, from Charlie Peters. It was: “Is this the best you can do?”
Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists – Recognize that this can be the most satisfying line of work available. The license to keep learning about things, and to tell people what you have found out, is an extraordinary privilege. Feel lucky to have this chance!
Want a current taste of Fallows’ work? He wrote this month’s cover story, “Obama, Explained.”