Writing up interviews effectively
May 19, 2017 9:58 AM   Subscribe

What are some examples of really effective writing based on interviews that balance the voice of the interviewee, framing narration, etc. in a compelling fashion for readers? Bonus points for pieces around ~1,000-1,500 words that work well as blog/Medium posts.

I've been working on an interview project that involves sitting down with a group of folks for two 1-2 hour interviews and learning about their lives online/as part of online communities/using social media/etc. My goal was to create a "digital storytelling" output that explores a wide variety of themes in the context of individual lives and perspectives. It's been a really great experience so far and I feel privileged to work with their stories, but I feel like I haven't been as effective in crafting their responses into accessible narratives.

So far, I've published two annotated interviews that are edited/condensed/rearranged versions of their responses that omit my voice outside of including my interview questions. The platform I'm using allows me to use context cards that annotate their text with links/media/etc. so the reader can explore what they're talking about directly. My rationale with focusing on their direct responses is that I initially wanted the outputs to function closer to oral histories and to minimize my editorial voice. However, I'm finding that these pieces are just too sprawling (they're each 3,000-5,000 words), and my attempts to tackle 4-6 subthemes alongside an exploration of my interviewee as a person makes the end result sort of convoluted. I think it would work in a more academic context, but the storytelling and engaging aspects of the project are getting lost in the format.

My instinct is to switch to a mix of direct quotes and more explicit crafting of narrative/themes, shorten them, and maybe consider having a part 1 and part 2 (and part 3?) as needed. But I'm still struggling with how much of myself to write into the narrative, both literally in the scenes but also in terms of my analysis and thematic organizing. I'm not really concerned with clicks and views for their own sake (none of this needs to be clickbaity!) but I do want to keep the reader in mind more and engage them with the individuals I'm profiling and their stories -- and right now wading through long streams of text isn't working.

Thank you!
posted by elephantsvanish to Writing & Language (3 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered an "as told to" format? The NYT Magazine does a nice job with this in their Lives series.

I think if your goal is to have the pieces be under 1,200 or 1,500 words then you should just set one of those a hard maximum and stick to it. Any word limit is arbitrary in online publishing but as you're finding out there will always some seemingly compelling reason to stretch out a piece of writing so it's useful to have a red line. If completeness is important to the project then you could keep an archive of annotated transcripts that you link to from the narrative piece.
posted by otio at 11:47 AM on May 19, 2017

Max Brooks' novel "World War Z" supposes that Brooks is a researcher hired by the UN to document first-hand accounts of a globe-spanning zombie outbreak and the events that followed, culminating eventually in steady counterpush by the non-infected to wipe out the threat. So, a work of fiction, where the interviewer gets to create his subjects from whole cloth... but it also means that it's written for narrative compulsion. Each new chapter takes us to a different character (there 20ish POV characters in total) but many chapters may fit your length needs. With 20ish POV characters, Brooks has to chop a lot of wood in each chapter. Like your published interviews, the narrator usually fades away, but it really varies with the character; one character is not a native English speaker; another is substantially traumatized, and both require some urging as part of the narrative.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:55 PM on May 19, 2017

Try looking at Studs Terkel's books like "Working" to serve as a model.
posted by Leontine at 10:08 PM on May 19, 2017

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