How to Write an Excellent Interview Feature
I hereby share a segment from the fourth chapter of one on my books, Feature Writing Simplified, to help students and practitioners who are tasked with the responsibility of crafting interview stories hand in brilliant pieces.
Interview features are based on the writer’s dialogue with the subjects. Those interviewed may be recognised authorities in special fields or well-known persons whose prominence gives weight to their views. They may also be relatively “unknown persons whose ideas are new and unique.” 
While a writer may occasionally get a story from an impromptu interview, it is usually better to make an appointment thus giving the interviewee time to think about the subject and come up with more interesting and comprehensive material.
A list of questions should be pre-planned and loosely adhered to so that the writer can elicit the exact information he desires. Whatever the theme of the interview, the writer should endeavour to ask the readers’ questions (the kind they would ask if they were to meet the interviewee).
The interview article is usually divided into two portions – the introduction and the text. It can begin with a vivid description of the person interviewed – his personal particulars, appearance, mannerisms, surroundings and background. It may also begin with an epigram or a quotation from the interview followed by a description of the interviewee. The reason for the interview should be included in the introduction along with any relevant background or explanatory material.
The text usually consists of the questions and responses in the form of direct quotations. Excerpts can be used if the interview was too lengthy. Also, needless repetition and meaningless responses should be omitted to avoid wasting the reader’s time and effort. And words should be added where the writer has omitted or transposed some of the responses to ensure clarity and a smooth flow of the article.
The foregoing and a few other useful guides gleaned from William Zinsser’s On writing well have been condensed into the following quotation:
You’ll find that (the interviewee) said much that’s not interesting, or not pertinent, or that’s repetitive. Single out the sentences that are most important or colorful. You’ll be tempted to use all the words that are in your notes because you performed the laborious chore of getting them all down. But that’s a self-indulgence. Your job is still to distil the essence.
Never let anything go out into the world that you don’t understand. Don’t become the prisoner of quotes – so lulled by how wonderful they sound that you don’t stop to analyse them. (When in doubt) you can call the person you interviewed. Tell him you want to check a few of the things he said. Get him to rephrase his points until you understand them.
I know from experience that it’s just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes. What’s wrong, I believe, is to fabricate quotes or to surmise what someone might have said. Therefore, if you find on page 5 of your notes a comment that perfectly amplifies a point on page 2 – a point made earlier in the interview – you will do everyone a favor if you link the two thoughts, letting the second sentence follow and illustrate the first. This may violate the truth of how the interview progressed but you will be true to the intent of what was said.
(Also), play with the quotes by all means – selecting, rejecting, thinning, transposing their order, saving a good one for the end. Just make sure the play is fair. Don’t change any words that would distort the proper context of what remains. (Don’t) let the cutting of a sentence (do that either).
Finally, if the speaker’s conversation is ragged – if his sentences trail off, if his thoughts are disorderly, if his language is so tangled that it would embarrass him – the writer has no choice but to clean up the English and provide the missing links. (If) there’s a hole in the language or the logic, to leave the hole is no favor to the reader or the speaker – and no credit to the writer. You have to patch the damage. Often you only need to add one or two clarifying words. Or you might find another quote in your notes that makes the same point clearly. (Whatever you do, however, let the interviewee’s) turns of phrase (remain. Let the responses) sound like him.
The example below is a product of the juggling, eliding and provision of missing links recommended by Zinsser. It is an interview a student had with a newly-elected Students’ Union president at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As I did in the quotation from Zinsser, I have put brackets around the words I inserted in the interviewee’s responses for illustration. (Included in this post is just an excerpt. The full interview can be read in the book.)
“Students’ Welfare is my Major Concern”
– New SUG President
by Martin Oji
They call him a preacher and he is one. The newly sworn-in Students’ Union Government (SUG) president of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Mr. Ikechukwu U. Anaga, is one whose election into office comes as a surprise. For one thing, he is a devout Christian whose pious standing seems to conflict with his new role as fighter for students’ rights. For another, he comes from the faculty of social sciences (department of sociology, social works unit) and succeeded amidst stiff opposition from the school authorities and two opponents from the faculty of engineering, a faculty that has consistently produced SUG presidents, at least in the last five years. And then, he is only a second-year student.
In this interview, the SUG president bares his mind on the state of affairs in the school and the controversies that characterized past SUG executives. He also speaks on the focus of his administration and what he hopes to achieve in office.
Anaga proved to be a very approachable fellow. This was demonstrated by his immediate acceptance to grant this interview at his presidential lodge in Akintola hall. The handsome and eloquent Sunday School teacher who is always impeccably dressed is primarily concerned about students’ welfare as the text of this interview shows.
Q: Mr. President, I congratulate you on your election. How does it feel like being the No.1 student of a big school like UNN?
A: Thank you for congratulating me. I am still my usual self, it’s just that I have greater responsibilities to the students right now. I remember (one former American president), when he won the presidential elections, he went into his bedroom and started crying. Some of his aides came and asked him why and he told them, “Look I am now carrying the problems of the whole Americans on my shoulder.” Just like him, now I am carrying the problems of over 25,000 students squarely on my shoulders. That’s it.
Q: So what you are saying is that you are already feeling the stress.
A: Well I used to be plump, but I have reduced so much. I came back from Katsina yesterday (date) and started working right away. I was here consulting with students till 8 p.m. This morning I went to the police station. In fact, I had to cut some of the assignments to meet up with others. And I even started working before my inauguration. I had to do the work myself, I am the chief servant. I must confess to you that it is really hectic.
Q: What informed your decision to run for the SUG presidency?
A: I came in here through (the) diploma (programme) and I took time looking at the students and how they are taken care of. People pay service charges and nothing is done for them. As I thought about it and prayed, God spoke to my heart and asked me to pick the form. Actually, I have been taking care of children in Sunday School. That is where my ministry is more – taking care of young people. That is why I chose to read social works and community development. Picking the form was like doing one of the things I am used to.
Q: And what will be the focus of your administration?
A: From the way I’ve been sounding you will know that my focus will be the welfare of the students. The motto of this school is “To restore the dignity of man.” (That means) restoring everything about man; bringing him to a level where he is learned, a fulfilled man. When someone is not educated, he is not fulfilled. But an educated man can be transferred to the world outside the university and (he will) be ready to face the challenges there. So my focus is going to be the welfare of the students. For sometime now, Nigerian higher institutions have been taken over by cult boys and many people are being killed, (there are) series of rapes and all that. I want to make sure that the students are well protected. I don’t mind stepping on toes to do that. If I step on toes now, when I am out of office, I can still go and make up, but if I hurt the students by not providing for their welfare, I won’t survive it. This place is going to be too hot for me. They saw that I could do it, that was why they elected me.
Q: Do you have a laid-down plan or blueprint for achieving this objective?
A: Yes. I intend making sure I dialogue for every thing I will get for the students and I tell you, I have achieved so much with this. When the students were talking about extension of the curfew, I went to see the chief executive (vice-chancellor) and he approved of it. When the Okeke (hostel) students were having problem with their light, I negotiated with the school authorities and power was restored.
Apart from that, I intend having a 20-man committee that will be divided into sub-committees for light, water, security and special duties. Each of these committees will now take care of one aspect of the students’ lives and communicate with them on efforts being made to improve their welfare.
Q: Thank you very much, Mr. Anaga, for granting this interview. I wish you a successful tenure in office.
A: Thank you and God bless you!
Illustrating the interview feature
As stated in my book, Magazine article writing, “An interview feature requires one or more pictures of the subject (the interviewee). They could be pictures taken during the interview or those he took previously if the writer was not armed with a (good) camera.” I might add that a picture of both the interviewer and the interviewee that clearly shows the latter’s face is also acceptable.
18 Helen M. Patterson, Writing and selling feature articles. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1956), p. 65.
19 William Zinsser, On writing well. 5th edition. (New York: Haroer Perennial, 1994, pp. 71, 73, 79, 72, 73, 78. (This quote was framed through some “juggling and eliding” of Zinsser’s material.)
***What information should writers add to the introduction of their interview features?
***In what ways can writers improve the sequence and clarity of the material they obtained from interviews?
***Suppose you were to interview the following personalities on the stated topics, prepare a list of the questions you would ask each of them.
- The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, on the efforts of his administration to ensure the safety of staff and students during this COVID-19 pandemic
- The Ondo State Commissioner of Police on what his command is doing to combat the menace of herdsmen-kidnappers
- Nollywood actor and director, Tchidi Chikere, on the current challenges and prospects of the industry
***Write a feature based on your interview of a personality of your choice on an issue of public interest.
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Itule, B. D. & Anderson, D. A. (2008). News writing and reporting. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kennedy, G., Moen, Daryl, R. & Ranly, D. (1993). Beyond the inverted pyramid. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Ohaja, E.U. (2005) Feature writing simplified. Enugu, Nigeria: El ‘Demak.
Ohaja, E. U. (2004) Magazine article writing. Lagos, Nigeria: John Letterman.