Reporting 101: Don’t talk too much. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.

At the Washingtonian, I encouraged young writers to focus more on listening when doing interviews. I worried that young writers would want to impress the interviewee by showing how smart they were and would talk too much.

We had one writer, Larry Van Dyne, whose forte was explanatory journalism—he had degrees from the University of Missouri and Harvard and he wrote about everything from where the region’s drinking water came from to how to rob a bank. He said he read a lot before he started interviewing but didn’t always let the interviewee know that he knew a lot. He explains that strategy:

“I always believed in doing lots of homework so that I had a pretty good idea of what the subject might say. I always asked lots of open-ended questions, especially at the front end of an interview (‘Tell me a little about such and such’).  And lots of what you might call dumb questions (‘I’m confused about this so maybe you’d better explain it to me again’).

“I always thought what came to the top of the subject’s mind on open-ended questions told you something about how he or she viewed an event or topic. Since I already knew lots about the subject, these open-ended and sometimes dumb questions also revealed if the interviewee was evasive or not telling the truth.”


  1. Neil Manson says

    This is *exactly* right.

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