The secret questions

Two tricks come to mind, and the first is a luxury not all reporters have: time. Spending a lot of time with your sources is crucial.  Meeting for a one-hour lunch might be fine for a newspaper article. But for anything longer — a magazine piece, certainly a book — it just won’t do. All you’ll get is the stuff the person is prepared to say, the stuff on the surface. Multiple interviews are best; each time you peel them down another layer. But sometimes the best time you spend with a source is the time you spend not talking at all. I’ve found that just sitting quietly on the porch, drinking beer from the six-pack I’ve brought along, has been some of the most valuable time I’ve spent with sources. The conversations that follow times like that are frequently golden.

The other trick is one anybody can use, regardless of how little time the writer has, and is frequently overlooked: Ask questions completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Talking to that developer? Suddenly throw in a question like, “How many siblings to have, and where do you fall in the lineup?” “What do you do for fun?” “What are you reading lately?” Often, it seems, the answers that come back not only give you personal details, but the way they’re spoken lend insight into why the person feels the way he does about the issue at hand. Very little of the data you get back will actually go in your story, probably. But it will help you make the person real — complete — on the page. And very often, those off-topic conversations provide the tiny fillip of pathos that makes the entire story make a deeper, more memorable sense.

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