Don’t Forget the Old-School: Pen & Paper Interviews

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to talk about some oldie, but goodie elements of article writing that are still important for writers. It’s easy to dismiss some tried and true techniques because of all the fancy, technological whiz-bangs available to writers, but when technology fails – and it will from time to time – it’s good to have something to pull out of your coonskin cap.

Do I sound 100 years old yet? Good.

Pen and paper interviews. Important. Reliable. Still in use even after the invention of the iPhone.


Because technology doesn’t have your best interest at heart. It doesn’t care about your deadline. It cares about making sure its processes work correctly and if they don’t it’ll shut down until it, you or a well-paid tech person finds a fix. I hate to get all Matrix-y on you, but it’s true.

Digital recorders, cell phones, even old-school tape recorders have been known to stop working, accidentally delete and otherwise cause massive damage to your well crafted, Pulitzer prize nominee interview. Which is why you take notes. With a pen and paper. Freaky!

The Long and Short.

Back in the days of widespread pen and inking, people took classes in shorthand – that is writing quotes and information in a symbol or code form to be able to keep up with a person’s speaking speed. Some of the chief complaints of non-pen and inkers are learning shorthand isn’t a viable skill, is too time consuming to learn or keeping up with spoken word is too difficult.

Cry me a river. Keeping up with spoken word is too hard? Hard is explaining that you accidentally hit the erase button on your iPhone and lost the entire Dalia Lama interview. Writers don’t have to learn an “official’ shorthand – making one up on your own is just as viable as long as you remember how it works. This shouldn’t be too hard considering most Americans who find themselves texting or shrinking thoughts down to 120 characters use some form of shorthand already. So take a moment and figure it out because you won’t be able to keep up using long hand. Which brings me to…

The Eyes Have It.

It’s tough – taking notes and keeping eye contact with the interview subject – but it’s a skill great writers have worked hard to develop. In a person-to-person interview, maintaining eye contact and engaging the person is key to bringing out the story. It also works to help the person forget about the ‘interview’ and just talk. If you’re scribbling furiously and barely looking up, there’s a disconnect and it’ll be tough to get back on track. This is where shorthand helps. It also helps to practice interviewing in this way. Sure it’s more work, but that’s what happens with skills – you have to work at them ;0).

Transcribing and Storing

The funky thing about handwritten interviews is going over and transcribing your notes. Now this isn’t always a necessity if you are using a digital recording back-up. Storing your notes is completely up to your discretion. I still have notes from important interviews I conducted in college. Normally, I’ll keep notes for at least two years, depending on the subject and keep them all in one place under an organized system. This keeps me from rustling papers for an hour while an editor waits for a quote confirmation or source confirmation.

Pen and paper interviews – a worthy skill and investment in your writing career. Think about it and take action now. Think about how totally cool you’ll look with your spiral bound notebook. Jeepers!



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2 responses
  1. Angie Papple Johnston Avatar

    I absolutely love this. Just 3 months ago, I got out of the military as a Public Affairs Rep – and my main duty was composing press and story releases about breaking military news. I used to have to interview Iraqis (mostly through interpreters, so the disconnect was harder to overcome) everywhere we went when I was deployed – and I still have the notebooks with my own made-up shorthand inside. It looks ridiculous, messy and nonsensical, but I knew what it meant.

    Nothing, nothing, NOTHING can replace a pen and paper, in my book. I don’t know if that’s because it’s how I learned or if it’s just “right” for me.

    1. Terreece Clarke Avatar

      Angie! First thank you for your service to our country! What an amazing job you had! I can imagine paper & pen were far more reliable than sensitive digital equipment that could get damage through your day-to-day travels.

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