The 3 questions you should end every interview with

A quick path to more story ideas

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Here’s a lesson on reporting I learned years ago from an ace reporter at The Washington Post when I worked there: Every interview you do should end with the exact same three questions.

Yes, the same questions! No matter the subject or source, there’s a formula to follow every time. (Within reason — of course I don’t mean literally every interview, but you know.) This formula helps you fill in the blind spots you have around a topic, it helps you develop your source list, and it can lead to more story ideas down the road.

What are these magical questions three? Very simple:

  1. What would you like to talk about that I’m not asking about?

  2. Who else do you think I should talk to for this story?

  3. What are some trends or ideas in this area you think reporters should be covering?

Let’s dive in.

What would you like to talk about that I’m not asking about?

First, note the phrasing here: When you ask this question, phrase it around the assumption that there is something your source wants to talk about. Instead of giving them a yes or no question by asking, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about that I’m not asking about?,” you’re inviting them to share something they might not have thought would be worth mentioning.

Semantics aside, asking this can open up whole new lines of follow-ups and, potentially, new angles for your story, because you’re turning things over to the person directly involved in the subject matter. You’re basically saying: “I’ve asked about everything that I think is important, but now you tell me what’s important.” Particularly in the earlier stages of reporting, you’re still kind of figuring out what your story is, so leaning on your sources to guide you can help you figure it out.

Who else do you think I should talk to for this story?

When you’re starting out on a story and looking for sources, surely one of your first stops is Google. But what about sources who may not have a strong internet presence? Asking for referrals to other sources can help you get around this problem, and it can send you off to interesting and unique perspectives that you might not have considered before. This improves your story by diversifying the voices you’re highlighting, and it broadens your network of folks you can call on to see what’s happening around a given topic.


Next month I’m hosting three skills-based workshops. These are details-oriented and very in the weeds, and tbh, just a real fun time. Come join us!

Oct. 19: Personalized pitch feedback roundtable — Bring a pitch or two you want feedback on to this 10-person roundtable, which will be structured as a grad-school-level class in which everyone is expected to participate. Register here: https://t.co/T9dNt5GYX4

Oct. 21: The art of structuring a longform feature — Join me as I lead a deconstruction exercise of a longform narrative story and provide tips on how to use those tools in your writing. Register here: https://t.co/C0DTF3SFnu

Oct. 26: Everything to know about selling and writing a nonfiction book — Not sure where to start? Unclear on best practices for writing a proposal? How do you find an agent? All of that and more in this workshop. Register here: https://t.co/NlyqKwvukH

(Founding Members to the Substack get a $5 discount on every workshop! Email me at tim@freelancingwithtim.com if that’s you.)


What are some trends or ideas in this area you think reporters should be covering?

Whereas the previous two questions will help you drill down into the specific story you’re working on, broadening things out can lead you to stories you never would have thought to pursue. The old cliché, “Everyone’s an assignment editor,” actually works in your favor in this scenario. Who better to lead you to your next story than someone who lives and/or works in the topic?

This will also help you fill in the gaps of your knowledge. Even if you’re a beat reporter on a given topic, you’re still an observer — that’s our job as reporters. It’s very difficult to have the same level of insight and intuition about a particular line of coverage as someone directly involved in it, so just ask. I think one of the most important traits a reporter can have is intellectual humility, and asking point blank “What do I not know about this that I should?” gets right at it.

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Oh, a few other things …

• I am now offering one-on-one coaching! This can include anything you need help with: pitch feedback, writing and/or editing coaching, story development, story editing, social strategy, and anything else. Book a timeslot here.

For paid subscribers: This week I posted a huuuge update to the full archive of recorded Zoom panels and workshops! New playbacks include panels on selling and writing a book; writing better culture coverage and criticism; and everything to know about starting a podcast. Also new for paid subscribers: The dos and don’ts of writing the perfect pitch and the only pitch template you’ll ever need.

Okay bye ily!

-Tim ❤️