What, How and Why: Asking Better Interview Questions

Christian Eli Sarna
Jan 22 · 5 min read

When you first enter the wonderful world of journalism, you might get thrown into your first interview with this much instruction: ask open-ended questions, don’t accept yes-and-no answers, do your research ahead of time and be polite. While not terrible, these tips aren’t always helpful and don’t really tell you what you should be asking.

Not every “open-ended” question is going to get the answers you’re looking for. How do we get past the boring or useless questions and get your subject talking?

Instead of thinking about “open-ended” and “closed-ended” questions, I think about “What,” “How” and “Why,” or WHW. Let’s start with “What.”

The word “what” on a pink background.
The word “what” on a pink background.

A “What” question isn’t just a question with the word “what” in it. “What” questions are often closed-ended questions. This kind of question usually gets a yes-or-no answer. When used correctly, “What” questions are useful stepping stones to follow-up questions.

The trick to using “What” questions effectively is not to assume your subject can read your mind. If you ask your subject whether they transferred from Dream State University, don’t assume they’ll explain their journey.

If you aren't specific with your questions, you could get this response:

Q: Did you go to Aruba this summer? A: Yes.

This sucks! At least, it sucks if you don’t have a follow-up question. Every time I witness an interview grind to a halt in this fashion, I cry a little. Don’t let me get dehydrated. Use your “What” questions strategically and limit them by doing sufficient research ahead of time.

Let’s move from a “What” question to a “How” question.

The word “how” on a tan background.
The word “how” on a tan background.

A “How” question takes things a step deeper. Again, a “How” question isn’t just a question with the word “how.” This kind of question can be used to get lots of factual information and get your subject talking. A “How” question asks your subject to explain how they got from point A to point B in a situation.

The following is a “How” question, but your subject could easily answer with a “Why”:

What are some of the steps that brought you to Dream State University?

Notice how that question starts with “what?” Crazy, right? The “How” of this question comes from the intended response. This question is set up so your subject doesn’t stop at point A.

I mentioned above that this question could be answered like a “Why” question, but what exactly is a “Why” question?

The word “why” on a green background.
The word “why” on a green background.

A “Why” question goes just another step deeper. “Why” questions provide emotional depth and often contain the “so what?” of your story. These kinds of questions ask why something matters to your subject and why your reader should care.

This is an example of a “Why” question:

What made you choose Dream State University over your other scholarship offers?

With this in mind, a “Why” type answer to the question “What are some of the steps that brought you to Dream State University?” would discuss the motivation rather than the situation.

On my publications, I recommend students ask 10% “What” questions, 50% “How” questions and 40% “Why” questions. The bulk of the information in your body paragraphs will probably come from “How” questions and your most powerful quotes often come from “Why” questions, so this ratio is a fairly balanced approach. There is no golden rule to this, however, so feel free to experiment with what works for your specific publication.

In summary, not every question with the word “what” is a “What” question. The same goes for the other two types of question. These labels just refer to the depth of the question you’re asking. “Why” questions aren’t always inherently better; you have to find a balance that lets you tell a factual story while also showing the human side of your subjects.

For further reading, here are some examples of WHW questions:

Text reads “WHW examples” on a blue background.
Text reads “WHW examples” on a blue background.

The following sample questions are tailored to an interview with an imaginary student who founded a creative writing club at their college.

“What” questions:

  • How many members are in DSU Creative Writing Club?
  • How often/where do you hold meetings?
  • What kinds of activities do you do in the club?

“How” questions:

  • What led to Dr. Joe becoming the advisor of DSU Creative Writing?

“Why” questions:

  • If you could give young writers one tip, what would it be?
  • Why did you decide to double major in creative writing and biology?
  • How important is writing to you?
  • How do you think founding this club has impacted your college experience?

Bonus questions to keep up your sleeve:

  • Are there any other causes or organizations you are involved with?
  • What is a goal you or your organization is working towards?
  • How can people get involved with your organization or cause?
  • Is there anything else I should know about this topic?

Christian Sarna is a convergent journalism major at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. She is the Editor-in-Chief of The Griffon yearbook, Co-news Editor of the Griffon News and Co-news Anchor of the Griffon Update broadcast show. To learn more or get in touch, email christianesarna@gmail.com or find her on Twitter at @Sarna_GN.

Uh-oh! I’m a journalist

Entry-level journalism for the clueless correspondent.

Christian Eli Sarna

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Tragic: This Woman is a Journalist. Personal account, opinions are my own.

Uh-oh! I’m a journalist

Entry-level journalism for the clueless correspondent.

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