Key to Interviewing for Best Results: Preparation

Digital voice recorder
Whether you are writing a memoir for a family member, friend, or are being paid by a client, interviews will be your major ingredient in the mix. Here are some tips for making your interviews effective and efficient.

Establish an interview schedule
A specific date and time keeps your project on track and gives you credibility and shows courtesy to your subject. One possible schedule is one hour per week at 10 a.m. for eight weeks. You may extend the number of weeks if more time is needed, but it’s a good idea not to extend the clock time. I have a client with Attention Deficit Disorder and a bladder issue. He can only do thirty minutes at a time before he begins to dramatically digress, becomes tired, and has to go to the toilet. Elderly persons need special consideration and often thirty minutes is their maximum.

Interview in a comfortable place for your subject
I have done interviews on the telephone, in a subject’s home or office, and in a library. Avoid especially dark places and places that are too bright as well as public places such as restaurants where many noises can interfere. Sit where there is equal light on your face and the face of your subject. I prefer to sit across from my subjects rather that at their sides. Comfortable chairs in a living room or den work well. I have interviewed at a kitchen table at the request of a subject.

Write your questions
Even experienced interviewers bring written questions. Determine whether an interview will cover childhood, adolescence, married life and family, career and so forth and prepare accordingly. Most likely you will deviate from your prepared questions as you seek to expand a subject’s story. Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered by yes or no. Questions fall into the basics of who, what, where, when, why and how. Be careful using why so as not to appear threatening. See the resources at the end of this article for sample questions.

Use a digital voice recorder
Digital voice recorders range in price from $30 to $500 depending on their features. Simple and low-priced work for me. Learn how to use your recorder before going to an interview. Read the instructions and practice. Set up the recorder with batteries, date and time before the interview. Most recorders have a Hold button or tab which you should engage before you arrive for the interview and which can be easily disengaged when you start the interview.

Have an extra set of batteries with you at the interview. I use longer-life lithium batteries. Some recorders have an indicator to signal when battery life is low. Sometimes, though, batteries die without warning, much like a car battery. I usually glance at my recorder every few minutes during an interview to see whether it is still recording. On one occasion I didn’t do that and discovered later the batteries had quit five minutes into a one-hour interview. I was embarrassed to ask the subject to re-do the interview the next week and she graciously agreed.

Buy a device that plugs into your recorder and telephone for conducting telephone interviews. These can range from $20 to $40.

Take notes while recording
This might sound unnecessary, but you will appreciate it when you begin writing. I use a lined yellow pad and write the date of the interview at the top along with the name of the subject. As the interview progresses I write memory joggers, such as: “Eighth birthday party.” “First date.” “Learning to drive.” “Years in the Marines.” Most often there are several dates and sets of notes on the same sheet. These make it easier for me to locate the correct document and organize the material when I begin writing.

Keep the interview confidential
Do not talk of the interview contents away from your subject. Memoirs are quite personal and it is up to your subject to decide how the information will be used.

Resources for interview questions
All of the following are free:
Oral History Interviews, Questions and Topics
35-page Memory List Question Book
Kindred Keepsakes
Memoirs by Web Biographies
50 Best Lifestory Questions

Share your tips on interviewing best practices. Select comments below or send an email.

Photo: Quinton T. Burris

Call for Guest Writers

"Let's send it in."
I’m looking for guest writers to share their memoir writing experiences and expertise or to exchange posts on my blog. Scroll through my posts to view how others have shared.

Topics could include:
     - How you came to write your memoir.
     - Your challenges and how you
        overcame them.
     - Top 10 lists.
     - How-to articles or tips on memoir-
        writing issues.
     - A story that shows outstanding storytelling techniques.
     - Review of a memoir book or a book on how to write memoirs.
     - Other topics you may suggest related to writing memoirs.

By submitting an article you are certifying it is your original work. Previously published articles are accepted.

Articles should be 500 to 800 words. If I post your article you will receive a byline with your photo and a link to your website or blog. Please send inquiries or completed articles to, with Guest Writer Query in the subject line. Include a bio of no more than 75 words. Article and bio are subject to editing. Please do not send your photo unless requested.

If you wish to exchange posts please tell what you want to write on and what you want me to write on. If we exchange, the following will appear with your article on my blog: "This week I exchanged posts with Your Name. See my article at Your Blog Address."

Thanks a million—I look forward to hearing from you!

Photo: Ziko van Dijk

Donna Marie Williams: Honor Your Readers, Hire an Editor

Donna Marie Williams
Guest article by Donna Marie Williams

The dramatic rise in self-published books should mean that indie editors like myself are working overtime. Unfortunately that's not the case, and consequently our dirty underwear is showing. For example, I was curious about a particular self-published book, so I clicked over to Amazon to investigate. The following comments say it all:
  • "sad state of publishing"
  • "This book is the most appallingly written book ever -- there are elementary spelling, grammatical and factual errors that any real publisher would have spotted straight away, on every page."
  • "clichéd"
  • "double spaced, big font, with new topics starting every couple of pages immediately following empty space"
  • "Ugh. Get an editor."
  • "glaring typos"
  • "spelling and grammar errors were very distracting"
  • "The most glaring thing wrong with this book is the editing, or lack thereof! There were so many run-on sentences and sentences lacking correct punctuation that reading this book became a chore. I had to reread sentences because incorrect words were used. Seeing all the typos suggests to me that this author was only concerned with turning a quick buck."
  • "pass on this one"
  • "save your money"
You might sell your first book, but you won't get repeat business if you refuse to honor the reader. Your book has to be readable. The rules of grammar and editing exist to make reading a pleasure, not a chore.

If your book is not readable, people will save their money the next time you publish. I guess it could be argued that the market will weed out the bad stuff, but really, self-published books that haven't been edited, fact checked, or proofed give this entire industry a bad reputation.

I've heard every excuse in the book as to why writers won't invest in editing and proofing. Most say they don't have the money. Then, writers, you must raise the funds. In fact, before you even begin writing, come up with a plan for how you will finance this most important step in making your book the best it can be.

Even the greatest writers must be edited, fact checked, and proofed.

Honor your readers!

For more information about self-publishing and the indie publishing movement, visit Donna Marie Williams at her blog,

Photo courtesy Donna Marie Williams

What have been your experiences with editing and editors? Let us know by selecting comments below or sending an email.

Denis Ledoux: Memory Lists Can be the Backbone of Writing

Denis Ledoux
Book Review: Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories
Denis Ledoux
Soliel Press, 2006

Softcover, 272 pages with index

This book is on my reading list at

“Write your stories—now!”

That’s Denis Ledoux’s advice to would-be memoir writers. In this book he walks you through his simple and clearly articulated methods that help you remember more vividly, record your stories with pizazz, and achieve a greater understanding of your personal history.

The book is based on the memoir-writing workshop he developed in 1988 called Soleil Lifestory Network. He has trained hundreds of personal historians to teach his methods in their own communities.

“It’s okay to start with the writing skills you have now,” writes Ledoux. “As you write, you will learn more about writing and your skills will increase. If you wait until you know everything—well, you might never get to write at all!”

What is the payoff to you and your family?
1. A permanent record of your stories.
2. Great satisfaction in sharing.
3. Insights of relationships and behaviors.
4. Family unity.
5. Personal growth.
6. Meaning and order from dealing with fears.

The backbone of Ledoux’s writing process is a tool he calls the Memory List, used to open the lifewriting process quickly and thoroughly. (Throughout the book he uses the words lifewriting and lifestories as unhyphenated nouns or adjectives, a common practice among memoir writers.)

The Memory List consists of three to five words to help you quickly bring to mind “people, events, relationships, thoughts, feelings, things—anything—from your past.” They are not writing; they are just tidbits to jog your memory and are a work in progress. No need to force yourself to be chronological and no need to censor your memories.

Example of a Memory List
Each line on your list is a separate memory:
“brother Stan died.
green wallpaper—stage coaches and buttes.
Sister Marie Gertrude fell on stairs.
My parents divorced.
blue Schwinn bicycle.”

Ledoux suggests making two lists. One, a Core Memory List that recalls crucial events; the other an Extended Memory List that recalls smaller events.

Among the other techniques he covers are interviews and research, when to tell the truth and when it’s okay to guess, making a plan for writing your memoir, lifewriting as therapy, avoiding stereotypes and clichés, creating characters that are recognizably human, effectively using action and sensory details, and self-publishing your memoir as a book.

Each chapter ends with a writing exercise and with a short lifestory by a student from one of his workshops. 

Denis Ledoux is a writer, editor, teacher, writing coach, and author or co-author of thirteen books. Besides his writing and training workshops he offers a business development seminar by tele-conference for those who want to turn their writing and teaching experiences into a business.

Photo courtesy Soleil Lifestory Network 

What tips on remembering have you used? Share them by selecting comments below, or send an email.