Q&A

Q&A format for articles: Good or bad?

The Q&A format has its uses. An FAQ section covering frequently asked questions belongs on many websites. However, this format should be used sparingly for articles.

FAQs work, so why not Q&A articles?

Unlike articles, FAQs are meant to be searched or skimmed for one question, not read word-for-word. Their readers seek answers to specific questions or solutions for problems, such as “How can I fix it when I get Error Message XYZ?” An FAQ may include many questions, but the reader is interested in one—or only a few—Q&A pairs.

Q&As make it hard to grasp an overall message

The Q&A format makes it harder for readers to grasp your overall message than with an article. A traditional article can offer an introduction, headings, and a skilled writer’s transition between topics.

Q&A interviewees may hold you hostage

The Q&A format works best when your interviewees know how to hit your readers’ hot buttons, and they’re articulate. You can’t count on finding that in every interviewee.

When you choose a Q&A format, you deny yourself the use of paraphrasing. As a reporter, I learned that only lazy reporters always use direct quotes. Paraphrases, which restate what your source said, can be more economical and effective. Plus, a colorful quote stands out better against a background of plain vanilla text.

Q&A format is okay when…

A Q&A format works well when you

  1. Write FAQs
  2. Keep it short—My gut tells me three questions is a good length. A Q&A may work well as a blog post. I often discuss reader questions on my blog.
  3. Interview a famous person whose fans care about every word he or she utters—Think Justin Bieber and young girls or Jack Bogle and index fund devotees.
  4. Edit the interview transcript—Word-for-word transcripts don’t make anyone look good. At a minimum, cut out the ums, uhs, incomplete sentences that don’t work, and irrelevant material. If you’re interviewing a corporate employee for your company’s newsletter, you can take more liberties, as long as you check with the employee to make sure you haven’t misrepresented him or her.

What do YOU think?

I’m curious to learn what you think about the pros and cons of the Q&A format. If you’ve used it effectively, feel free to share a link.

10 replies
  1. David Lufkin
    David Lufkin says:

    I think Karen’s example is a good one of how to do Q&As, and also happens to follow Susan’s guidelines. The danger in print/web or video is lack of intelligent editing. I’ve seen this format work well with other industries, guitar making for example, where it’s great to get a lot of opinions on a narrow subject in a tight frame.

    As for FAQs, as ubiquitous as they are, they are often overused. I like to say that “FAQ is where content goes to die.” Keep ’em short and simple.

  2. Susan Weiner CFA
    Susan Weiner CFA says:

    David, I love your line about “FAQ is where content goes to die”!

    Karen,
    I agree that a Q&A format is a good way to capture roundtable content. I’m sure that great care went into editing the transcript to make it flow smoothly. As David said, a “lack of intelligent editing” might make this roundtable deadly. In its current form, the interested reader will skim the questions and zero in on the topics of interest.

    It might be possible to draw in more readers with an introductory paragraph that highlights interesting opinions or differences among the participants. I like introductions that give me a little more information about why the piece that follows will help me. Alternatively, in a piece with less artwork, pullquotes might serve the same purpose.

    I must confess that I wrote many Q&A pieces as a staff reporter and I’m about to start a new one for my blog. I’d better make sure I live up to the high standards I’m proposing.

  3. JT Long
    JT Long says:

    You make some great points. At Streetwise Reports (www.theaureport.com) we use the Q&A format for our interviews because we want to focus on the point of view of our smart experts rather than our writing style. But it takes careful editing to get rid of the verbal tics that can get in the way of smooth reading.

  4. Susan Weiner CFA
    Susan Weiner CFA says:

    JT, you make an excellent point about focusing on the experts’ point of view. I like how on your site you have an intro that highlights points made in the Q&A. That helps readers decide if they want to dive into the details of the Q&A.

    I agree that a Q&A emphasizes the expert’s point of view over the writer’s. That can be a plus or a minus, depending on how interested readers are in the topic.

  5. Lucinda Ellison Lu
    Lucinda Ellison Lu says:

    Excellent points all! I especially agree with your comment regarding editing, and removing the uhs, uhms and incomplete sentences. Inclusion of those can destroy flow and readability and don’t add anything to the piece. As an aside, I also agree on overuse of direct quotes. Articles have so much more impact when only strong quotes are used and the writer/reporter has the ability to paraphrase — the article will be so much more compelling.
    Great post!

  6. Candyce Edelen
    Candyce Edelen says:

    Susan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. We’re working on an article for a client right now, and I was considering using a Q&A format, but after reading your insights and the comments, I think we’ll take a different approach. In some of the Q&A style articles that I’ve read, the approach just starts to look like lazy journalism. It removes the necessity for the author to actually think about his/her subject and provide fresh insight.

  7. Blane Warrene
    Blane Warrene says:

    Great food for thought Susan! I have started to have one kind of Q & A grow on me – usually when it is narrowly focused. For example – Fortune used to run a Road Warrior column that asked people who travel heavily 5-7 questions about how they gear up for travel. I often bought the issue just for that one column (yes I am showing my age – bought the issue – I might as well mention records right?).

    I also like the Sunday NY Times column Corner Office – again a Q & A but focused in a discipline that is of great interest to me.

    So – in a general sense I would agree unless you can target a niche (as you mentioned with interviewing a star player in your field, et al) that will draw a lot of focus.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *