At Hammock, we get to interview people all across the country—and sometimes on the other side of the world. We love talking to these people face to face, but since many of them live and work thousands of miles away from our Nashville office, we interview most of them by phone. But what about the days when we can’t catch a busy business owner in the office or need to speak to a history expert six times zones away? In cases like these, e-mail is the easiest, most efficient way to do an interview.
As with anything, there is an art to conducting a good e-mail interview. While you don’t have the advantage of interacting and conversing with sources, you can still get the information you need without ending up with a bunch of stale, lifeless quotes. Here are a few of our secrets to interviewing via e-mail:

Introduce yourself properly. If you’re making contact for the first time, be sure to identify yourself, your publication, its circulation and readership, and the purpose of your story. Always let sources know how you came across their name and how their input can add perspective or insight to your story. Explain what kind of deadline you’re working against and when you need the information, but give the person enough time (at least 48 hours) to answer your questions.
Make it simple. There are several ways you can send your questions, but the easiest is to copy and paste them below the body of the e-mail. That way your source can simply hit reply and type their answers directly under your questions. It’s best to avoid sending questions in an attachment, such as a word or Excel document. Unless the source knows you well, he or she might be wary of opening the file from a stranger, lest a computer virus or a worm be attached.
Hone your questions. Keep your questions to a minimum. You don’t want to overwhelm your sources, especially when they are responding in writing. Choose open-ended questions that will discourage one-word answers and help you draw the most information from your source. But keep them clear, concise and direct, with one concept addressed per question. Start with a few broad questions, then move to more targeted ones. You need to be as specific as possible because you can’t ask follow-up questions immediately. Treat an e-mail interview like any interview, and do the necessary background research to prepare your questions.
Ask for a little extra. Encourage your sources to answer questions in complete sentences and, if possible, in a conversational tone. Ask for relevant documents, studies or images that they can easily attach and send back. Because you aren’t with sources to observe their environment or body language, hear their tone of voice or have a spontaneous exchange with them, look for ways to glean this kind of information through your questions. For example, if you’re interviewing someone about an event, ask the person to describe the experience or take you through what he or she was thinking or feeling at the time.
Proof carefully. Take time to polish and proofread your questions for spelling, punctuation and grammar before you send them. There is nothing more annoying to a source than getting a hastily composed e-mail with incomplete sentences, missing (or misspelled) words and half-baked questions. If you want your source to take the time to give you a thoughtful response, show the same courtesy with your inquiry.
Once you’ve followed these steps, you’re ready to hit send! Give your source a few days and, if you don’t get a response, it’s OK to send a gentle reminder. Once you get the answers you need, dash off a quick thank-you note. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications if the responses you receive aren’t sufficient, but don’t bog down the source with too many inquiries. Promise to pass along a link or clip of the article when it prints.
Want to learn how to interview via IM? Click here to find out how we do it.