Why I Don’t Transcribe Interviews

It’s always a relief when the personality for your interview walks through the doorway. Yes, you schedule the interview, plan your questions and prepare for it—but life happens and some times they are rescheduled. Thankfully the interview I mentioned from yesterday happened without a hitch. Well, relatively without a hitch.

I interviewed in a McDonald’s play area which marked a first for me. I could tell from the music in the background my tape recording would be a challenge for transcription (but I still recorded my conversation). Over the years, I’ve worked out a technique where I take a few notes—but also record. It allows me to maintain eye contact with my subject and interaction with them. At the same time, I get a few thoughts and quotes on my pad (provided I can read them later—my handwriting is pretty terrible).

I need a few minutes after the interview. It’s always key in my magazine article writing. These few minutes give me a chance to think about the interview and the potential shape of the article. In my head, I create an outline for the article.  Then hopefully I get another few minutes to scratch the outline on paper.

Immediately after my interview, I headed to the airport to pick up my wife returning from a trip back east. My drive in freeway traffic gave me these few minutes of breathing space to think about the significant portions of my interview.  When I reached the airport, I scratched a few outline notes. Soon I will type this outline and it will give me a road map of how I’ll piece together the eventual article.

With that background, I’m going to tell you why I always tape but rarely transcribe the tape. I will often return to the tape and check a few quotations on it. I know a number of writers who transcribe their tapes after an interview.  I’m unsure about the reasons. I know when I worked for Decision, the magazine required us to tape our interviews then transcribe them. Often as editors, we wrote stories for some of the celebrities that we interviewed. There was a strict way the articles were handled internally (written and edited) and part of that process involved having a transcription from the tape. It was many years ago, so the procedure has likely changed in their current operation. For that reason, I can see having a transcription but not normally.

Here’s the problem with a transcription: it puts the words into stone. They can’t be moved because they are typed or written on the page from the tape. Instead, I’ve found the interview process is much more fluid and as a writer, you need to move those words around from the interview—in your head—but also when you eventually write the article. 

My interview yesterday began with a particular detail from the sports figure’s life. I thought I understood the story—but then late in the interview (about an hour later), the athlete revisited the same topic—and added even greater detail so the significance became crystal clear to me. If I had been transcribing the tape, I might not have connected the two incidents when I wrote the article. The words would have been cemented in stone and not as easy to move around after they were transcribed.

In a few hours, I’m off to San Diego to teach at the San Diego Christian Writer’s Guild Fall conference. It will be a full weekend. In the meantime, I hope I have shown you the fluid nature of interviews from my experience.

2 Responses to “Why I Don’t Transcribe Interviews”

  1. Karen Says:

    Your post reminded me of my “favorite” interview. It was with a plastic surgeon who volunteered his time to go to South America and fix hairlips and cleft palettes. I had to interview him on the run between surgery and patient visits. He was a health nut and wanted to take the stairs–5 floors. I could barely speak. Thankfully, he had a video for me to watch that gave me a lot of background information. BTW I find the question and answer transcripted type interviews very boring to read.

  2. Macromoments Says:

    Terry, my first interview was a disaster, because I didn’t know how to keep the person on track. She kept launching into chatty conversation, and in my inexperience, I didn’t want to sound rude. So a half-hour interview turned into over an hour.

    Thanks for lending your expert advice. It’s a great resource for those of us who love hearing people’s stories.

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