To Transcribe or Not To Transcribe Interviews?

11 Secrets from an Experienced Interviewer

One of the unwritten rules of writing a book, an article, or any sort of material that requires the writer to interview experts or people "in the know" is to tape record the conversation. Whether the recording occurs via phone or in person is irrelevant. This rule is a good one.

This leads to the following questions:

* Do you transcribe every tape?

* Who owns the transcription?

The answer to these questions does have an "it depends" so let me explain. It depends on your state's or countries laws on the tape recording issue. It depends on the how much you're getting paid for the project. It depends on whether you can use the interview notes more than once. It depends whether you are using interviewing as an escape -- a procrastination technique because you enjoy that interview process more than the writing.

Okay, we got the "it depends" listed and out of the way. Let me present a few of my secrets -- the things I have learned as a writer and teacher over the last many years.

Secret 1: Just because you tape recorded the conversation doesn't mean you have to transcribe the tape. The tape is a great safety net for reviews.

Secret 2: You don't need to transcribe the whole tape. Many times all you need are the important parts.

Secret 3: Tapes are cheap, buy plenty instead of reusing, and keep them for a few years.

Secret 4: Create a tape master finding system. Microsoft Excel is a great way to track with a numbering system. Include the year somewhere in the numbering. Color coding adds visual effectiveness. Large colored dots are available at most office supply stores.

Secret 5: The storage container and where you store the tapes is important as to how long they last. Heat and moisture destroys the quality. Find small, thin, plastic containers with a tight seal with a one-layer depth.

Secret 6: Don't place a magnet anywhere near them. So keep the paperclip magnet and the phone (many have magnets in them) away from the tapes. Palm Pilots too.

Secret 7: Use rubber bands to consolidate tapes for a similar project or topic but be careful not to wrap them vertically over the open part of the tape. Wrap horizontally. After a few years rubber bands dry out and become brittle.

Secret 8: Delegate the task, it always cheaper either in dollars or patience. Place an ad at the local college and offer $30 to $45 per tape. I have found several through the Business Centers at high schools and community centers. If the interview is rare or precious, hire a professional service and pay the higher rate. Have at least 10 ways you can get a tape transcribed reasonably and fast at your disposal. Start with the Yellow Pages. Rate them on fastest and quickest. Consider using FedEx to deliver and pick up the tapes, for safety, and to save time. I never recommend sending the tape out of your country to save money.

Secret 9: Don't sign a contract, ever, if they have a clause in it, "All notes, tapes, materials and transcripts must be turned over to the publisher." Cross it out and don't agree to this. If the publisher is paying for the transcription and your time separately for the interview, they are yours.

Secret 10: Prepare the questions ahead of time and stick to them. Preparation saves time all around. If you are not sure what questions to ask, ask the publisher what questions do they want to have answered when they give you the assignment. It is a good procedure to provide the questions before hand to the interviewee. This helps them prepare. If they read from their typed notes then ask questions differently or drift with one question then return. They will usually stop reading, think, and not return to their notes.

Secret 11: If you are a fast typist you will most likely be able to type and capture 75% of the conversation. Learn to leave out repetitious information and use a keyboard shorthand. After the call, review the notes immediately and expand the shorthand. If you use a common shortcut, use "find and replace" in your word processor as a time saver. Also explain that you will be typing their response so that the sound of the keyboard doesn't distract from the conversation. If you prefer, you can even ask for permission: "I hope you don't mind, I'm a fast typist so I prefer to type my notes as we talk." It's like asking for permission but not quite.

(C) Copyright 2005, Catherine Franz. All rights reserved.

Catherine Franz is a writer and author of over 1800 published articles, books, and on various subjects. For more:

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© 2005