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After the interview

How to make the most of what you have

Don’t try to capture everything

John Murden, a citizen journalist in Richmond, Va., has a phrase to describe the toughest aspect of doing an interview: “The getting home with a page full of notes and not knowing what to do with it” part. Murden is the founder of the Church Hill People’s News and is also the Web wizard behind more than a dozen neighborhood news blogs.

Murden would like to interview and write more but is intimidated by the process. Synthesizing the information from an interview “takes me forever,” he says, adding, “I’m good at getting a couple of good pictures and a couple good sources.” Sometimes all he comes up with is a paragraph.

Murden may not realize it, but a paragraph might be just the ticket — a distillation of events that his busy readers will appreciate. Sometimes just a couple of good quotes are enough to convey what people are saying and feeling. Don’t think an interview must lead to a long story or a published transcript.

Another option: Publish something now — the most important decision made at a school board meeting, for example — and tomorrow write up an itemized list of everything else that was discussed; post it for discussion and follow-up.

Organize your notes as you go along

To avoid being overwhelmed later on by your notes, put an asterisk next to especially meaningful or to-the-point items while you’re jotting things down. That way you’re editing your notes while you go

You can also fold down the corners of your notebook pages, make a note of where you are on your recording device (note the time code on a digital recorder) or even make up your own shorthand words or symbols to indicate that a point is noteworthy.

Narrow down what you are covering to its most telling moments

If your neighborhood advisory committee discussed three issues but parking seemed of most concern, just write about parking.

Look through your notes or listen to what you captured on your audio recorder and write a tightly focused piece for your neighbors. You can mention that two other issues were discussed without going into detail about them. You can list pertinent contact names and numbers for readers who want to follow up.

Choose your quotes carefully

Your temptation might be to use the first quote you get — or else the most out-there utterance. But, as Sheila Regan says, sometimes you have to edit to best represent the true nature of an event or a group.

poor_peoples_marchWhen she covered the Poor People’s March at the Republican National Convention last summer, Regan aimed to get across the marchers’ reasons for being there. To do so she used only one-third of the quotes she got. Of her editing, Regan says, “Some of the people were colorful characters and kind of crazy, but they didn’t really fit the piece.”

One of the people Regan included in the story was Marin Peplinski, a retired teacher: “‘I think capitalism is unfair and undemocratic,’ Peplinski said. ‘I grew up poor, in the Saint Paul housing projects. I vote for the socialist or the communist. I never vote for the Democrat. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a rotten body.’”

Peplinski speaks from the far left of the political spectrum and uses strong, passionate language — and her quote is perfect because it reflects the ethos of the protesters and the themes of Regan’s story.

Paraphrasing quotes punches up the point

Christine Yeres, managing editor of — a weekly cyber newspaper launched to replace a community print paper that folded — said she and her business partners had to learn to be more sparing in using quotes from their interviews.

“[Even] if a quote was boring … we tended to take the whole chunk,” Yeres said of their early reports. Once they learned to paraphrase or trim long quotes, their stories were more on-point. Readers more easily grasped speakers’ thoughts and the quotes used had more power. “You don’t have to let the person’s own words speak all the time,” Yeres said.

The Interview Process

More Helpful Tips on Doing Interviews

Next Section (How to Edit Quotes)

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